Walking on campus today, I noticed that a group had placed a large number of flags across a grassy area on the mall between the Union and the library. (Here’s a link to image from the campus newspaper.) I assumed (correctly, as it turned out) these flags were meant to commemorate the victims of 9/11 – but I found myself thinking that in some ways, the flag was an odd symbol to choose. Looking over a list of victims, I noticed that about fifty victims were not from America (the non-Americans were primarily Mexican, British, and Canadian, but several other nations were represented).
This, of course, accords with the symbology of the attack, whose two targets, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, seemed chosen to represent military and economic power – a multinationalist economic power embodied in the WTC’s very name. One could argue, in fact, that it’s the very internationalist, non-parochial potential of trade (leaving aside for now arguments about favoring the mobility across national lines of capital over people) that opposes it to the fundamentalism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, since fundamentalism rests upon a pre-sorted identity, an exclusion of the disfavored, a defining and utterly delimited naming of “truth,” to which the post-national flexibility exemplified by the presence of citizens of so many nations in a single place would be anathema. For any fundamentalism, truth is fixed, received once in a revelation regarded as literally divine. There’s no question of interpretation, modification, or a loyal opposition: you’re either with us, or with the infidels.
If the flags mourning these victims of many nations might represent America at its best, as essentially the first post-national nation (“post-national” because its ideals and its citizens are not native, nor imagined as exclusively and specifically so; instead, there’s no national tongue, no national blood, only shared ideals which are explicitly universalist, not limited to a chosen few people), then the victims are appropriately memorialized. Certainly no one asked them for their citizenship or passport before they were untimely obliterated.
In this light it’s sadly ironic to see where the post-9/11 world has come – since America at its worst seeks by force to extend a monolithic, rigid set of ideals, ideals of economics, of control, of ideology and “democracy from above.” In this reading the sad irony is that the international victims, who in life might have proudly proclaimed their British, Mexican, or other citizenship, find themselves posthumously ruled American by fiat, by decree.
But as I’ve written before (in rather a different context), there’s only one nation, and it both extols and extinguishes those better ideals. And so one of the sadder aspects of the US post-9/11 is way borders have dissolved utterly for capital (flowing one way) and jobs (the other), while rigidifying for humans, both at the physical borders and in the psychological borders within the nation, separating people on the basis of name, color, or employment. (Legally, by the way, anyone earning money in this nation, citizen or not, licitly employed or not, is compelled to pay taxes on that income – regardless of whether they have any voice in the nation’s affairs. Taxation without representation, anyone?) Capital moves across the face of the nations, leaving its borders waste and without form, but frowns on the dark faces chained to its machinery.
I’d like to end with some rousing peroration about those three thousand flags, about the need to make them reflect our ideals rather than a will to power, but I’m feeling rudderless and powerless at the moment, as lies and distortion wash over us in a surge of propaganda, and our supposed loyal opposition is so loyal its opposition looks more like an exact reflection. So, sorry.