In reference to the American flag t-shirt/Cinco de Mayo flap, Roger Ebert tweeted:
Kids who wear American Flag t-shirts on 5 May should have to share a lunchroom table with those who wear a hammer and sickle on 4 July.
Then some people on the Internet said some mean things to him, and he really put his foot in it. If you don’t mind, I’m going to get in a late hit.
The central problem with the tweet isn’t any attempt to suggest moral equivalence between the flags of the US and USSR. The problem is that kids (even “difficult” ones) don’t wear the hammer-and-sickle to school on 4 July, for the very good reason that school isn’t in session on 4 July. Even if kids are in school over what would be (traditionally) summer vacation, Independence Day is going to be a holiday. Any attempt to link the two behaviors is foolish; the school has even less business harassing the posited commies than it does the Marin kids.
Ebert posted a follow-up on his site, because the best way to react when people are being mean to you for saying something dumb is to (a.) kinda-sorta walk it back, and (b.) turn up the blowhard dial to 11.
Ebert began by trying to walk back the original tweet, saying that “in its 108 letters” he was merely trying to suggest “that we could all use a little empathy”, and that he “wish[es] [he] had worded it better”. Well, whatever. “We could all use a little empathy”, in practice, means “the people I don’t like should see things from the perspective of the people I do like; the people I do like can just carry on”. As a idea, it’s the intellectual equivalent of popped bubble wrap.
The really embarrassing part of his follow-up consists of these “thought experiments”:
- You and four friends are in Boston and attend the St. Patrick’s Day parade wearing matching Union Jack t-shirts, which of course you have every right to do.
- You and your pals are in Chicago on Pulaski Day, and wear a t-shirt with a photograph of Joseph Stalin, which is your right.
- In San Francisco’s Chinatown for the parade, your crowd wears t-shirts saying “My granddad was at the Rape of Nanking and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”
- In Chicago for the Bud Billiken Parade, you and your crowd, back in shape after three hospitalizations, turn up with matching t-shirts sporting the Confederate flag.
His point, of course, is that it wouldn’t be wise or generally considered appropriate to wear those t-shirts in those contexts. Which is true as far as it goes. Let me propose my own 4 thought experiments, however:
- You and four friends are in Boston and attend the St. Patrick’s Day parade wearing matching American flag t-shirts, which of course you have every right to do.
- You and your pals are in Chicago on Pulaski Day, and wear a t-shirt with an American flag, which is your right.
- In San Francisco’s Chinatown for the parade, your crowd wears t-shirts with an American flag.
- In Chicago for the Bud Billiken Parade, you and your crowd, back in shape after three uneventful outings, turn up with matching t-shirts sporting the American flag.
The idea that certain symbols are offensive to certain people is unremarkable. However, when the official culture of a nation begins to view its own symbols as potentially offensive, that is weird and, in my view, unhealthy. The American flag is different from those other symbols not because America is better (w/ apologies to the UK) than what those other symbols represent, but because it is the nation of all the parties involved: the kids, the administrators, and Ebert.
Finally, on his blog, Ebert breaks out the final, guaranteed-to-persuade weapon in his rhetorical arsenal — condescension:
In my earlier piece, I made the mistake of using wit and irony. I found many readers who do not receive on those wave lengths. There’s a compulsion in some precincts of the Right to find others guilty of crimes out of proportion to the perceived offense. Anyone who is a liberal, as I am, must therefore be socialist, racist, and so on.
(Quick side note: I don’t consider Ebert a liberal. I’m a liberal. I believe in liberty. Ebert is a leftist. He believes in government. Anyway.)
The rest of Ebert’s post is devoted to a re-hash of the idea that some symbols/clothing can be offensive/inappropriate in some contexts. It completely fails to notice/engage with the extraordinary nature of the idea that a nation should consider its own flag offensive in some cases, because of what it represents. Ebert does throw some smoke into the air around the fact that some consider casual wearing of the flag disrespectful to the flag and what it represents, but this can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to confuse the issue, or a failure to understand the extraordinary nature of his central claim.
To sum up: When caught making extraordinary claims you don’t wish to defend, here’s the Roger Ebert guide to handling Internet controversy:
- Backpedal (weakly)
- Assume a hectoring, professorial tone
- Condescend to your opposition
- Avoid addressing the most controversial elements of your claims
- Introduce irrelevancies
Yeah, yeah, I know. Pot, kettle. Stones. Glass houses.