Bright lights of America

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  April 30, 2008

I make my living being provocative. I call people jerks, and they react by labeling me as an Islamofascist, Hugo Chavez-hugging, Tibet-suppressing, perverted, homophobic, chauvinistic, feministic, hedonistic, anal-retentive, anti-intellectual, elitist, unpatriotic, xenophobic, materialistic, hippie-dippy, business-hating, environment-debasing libertine with poor personal hygiene and even worse grammar. Also, a promoter of the white, Euro-centric paradigm, and an underminer of the Founding Fathers’ faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Once, I was even called a New York Yankees fan.

That seemed excessive.

But most of this mudslinging is to be expected. The price you pay for exercising your right to free speech by being deliberately annoying is that other people will respond by doing likewise. That’s what makes this country great. Or, at least, interesting.

As a result of my experiences in the insult-swapping marketplace, I’ve come to have enormous empathy for those who make controversial statements. That’s empathy, not sympathy. If you kick people in the head, metaphorically speaking, you’ve got to expect they’re going to kick back, sometimes employing fewer figures of speech and more footwear. You ought not to be surprised, and you better not get whiny. After all, you started it.

Which brings us to Susan Crane of Auburn, a University of Maine at Farmington student. On April 15, as part of an art project, Crane put what appeared to be several American flags on the floor of the school’s student center in such a way that passers-by would have to change course or walk on them. She then videotaped their reactions. She told the Daily Bulldog Web site that she was hoping the installation would cause people to reflect on what patriotism meant.

Now, this is where the story gets weird. Crane told the Bulldog she wasn’t expecting the reaction she got. Which — big shock — consisted of a bunch of outraged veterans.

“The strong emotions caught me by surprise,” she said. “The veterans said, ‘A lot of people died for that flag.’ I had a hard time with it.”

Come on, Susan, you got into college. You couldn’t really be that numb.

Those of us in the controversy biz know there are certain subjects that can’t be messed with, without provoking a huge — often excessive — reaction.

The American flag.

God.

And, for some reason I’ve never understood, cats.

If you burn the first, cast doubt on the existence of the second, or drown the third, you will face the wrath of vets, the religious right, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. If you wrap a cat in a flag and drown it to demonstrate that God doesn’t exist, you might get picketed by all three groups at once, which should make for some interesting interactions. UMF art students should feel free to borrow that idea for future projects. (UMF art students seeking an insightful commentary on their output should eliminate the space in the previous sentence between “UMF” and “art.”)

The point is, you’ve got a right to be obnoxious. And so does anybody who finds you so. At Crane’s event, one vet tried to grab the flags off the floor, but was told he’d be arrested if he did, since Crane had university permission to place them in the student center. So, the guy sat on one of the flags to keep it from being walked on. Apparently, planting your butt on the national symbol is more respectful than planting your feet on it.

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