Monday, May 10, 2010

Euros and T-Shirts

On the other hand, Elgar is one of those artists who’s distinctly British. Decent, just, regal, solid. Every European culture has distinct composers who capture the national flavor – Wagner’s theatrically tragic romanticism, Respighi’s time-soaked Roman interludes, all the mournful bipolar Russians. (France had no distinct classical voices until Debussy and Ravel started blowing smoke and pouring absinthe; they got in on the tail-end of the tradition to make its decline seem comfortingly modern. There was Berlioz, who was amazingly French, but: how many great French symphonists? Right.) These are sounds that shape cultures, create and reinforce identity. As an American I don’t believe in this sort of cultural homogeneity – for us. But for them? It’s who they are. You can be an Italian in Europe with Italian values in an European context, but the idea of making everyone Europeans with European values, with nothing to distinguish the individual cultures but varieties of cheese seems foolish. Because these things will assert themselves again, and they will do so at the worst times.

O Irony: Europe could be truly multicultural if it defined the term to mean a large geographical entity with several distinct cultural identities sharing simple values – parliamentary democracy, degrees of socialism, abhorrence of militarism, and so on. But the leaders have pushed multiculturalism down to the local level, where immigrant cultures abrade long-standing traditions, and the pub that had no trouble being down the block from the Church is now forbidden a license to move because it would be too close to a Mosque. The pretense of continental old-culture integration must assume that immigrant cultures assume to the new transnational model, when most immigrant cultures will simply maintain their old ways. Why not? I would. It’s human nature.

The American experience – in theory, anyway – required acceptance of a set of civic ideals, because those were the cultural norms. As played out in the 19th and early 20th century, this meant learning how to operate the System that ran large cities, and if you were in smaller cities, it meant forming discrete isolated organizations that kept private traditions alive while maintaining involvement with the civic apparatus. It generally worked because everyone was from somewhere else, and everyone was interested in Doing Better. Getting Ahead. Making Things. Baking a bigger pie to be carved up, or inventing a new pie altogether.

Bromides and generalities, I know. But of all the Outrage of the Day stories that gush over the wires, the tale of the high school kids who were expelled for not hiding American flag T-shirts on the Fifth of May is one that just . . . depressed me, completely, for a while. So the act of wearing a flag on another nation’s non-holiday holiday is an act of provocation and malice. So we are now to assume that other American citizens will be insulted by the presence of the American flag on a day that commemorates a battle against France in another nation, and must be protected from the sight lest they . . . what? Get violent? I doubt any school administrator would admit he or she suspected that would happen, which leaves us with: The presence of the flag is offensive. So says a public official.

Tell me how this goes someplace we want to be.