During the period that began at the end of WWII and ended one second before the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the American flag had become an increasingly empty emblem. But the star-spangled banner was born again on September 11, and oh say, you can see it waving everywhere you look these days, awakening what feels like real patriotism in many cynical hearts, mine included. How bizarre to feel one's soul stirred by an icon that only weeks ago seemed utterly irrelevant; so ubiquitous that it was invisible, symbolically weightless, distasteful, even. Camp, even. Of course, standing on the brink of world war is a complex matter, and complex times call for simple symbols.

It stands to reason, then, that local businesses--trembling at the prospect of impending recession--would be doing their best to reflect this new nationalism by displaying as much Old Glory as they can get their hands on. It hardly takes a national tragedy to get most stores to go all Yankee Doodle; all Sears and Nordstrom require is a national holiday. Most big retail operations are decked out in red, white, and blue on Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. What's surprising in the wake of September 11, however, is the number of independent, alternative businesses--the kind typically owned, staffed, and patronized by skeptics and dissenters, people who see through the Big Lie of jingoism--that are flying flags.

Two weeks ago, hipster bastions like Retro Viva (where a flag currently covers graffiti burned into the glass front wall with acid), Area 51, and Metro would have been the last place you'd expect to see patriotism expressed (except perhaps ironically), simply because it was deeply unfashionable. But now the sentiment has transcended fashion--at least temporarily--and entered the world of actual meaning.

"We have the flag displayed to honor those who died in the World Trade Center," says Zoe Kaylor, assistant manager of Lips, a goth clothing boutique on Broadway, "and not for any purpose other than to say we share in their sadness in this tragic event." Kaylor has close-cropped bleach-blond hair and wears a short, tight black dress. I ask if her clientele has had any negative response to the flag, which hangs in the window behind a pair of punky plaid trousers. She admits that some younger customers "have made comments like 'the American flag is tacky,' 'it's not cool,' 'it's not goth enough.' And, y'know, they're not seeing the whole picture. There's a time and place where it's okay not to be cool or hip or goth and just be human. This is about humans coming together."

"I can't imagine not hanging the flag," says Kimmie Barnett, owner of the Erotic Bakery in Wallingford, where an employee printed a copy of the flag directly from the web on the day of the attacks. "The world needs our opinion, and we're gonna give it to them."

"Before," argues Scott McQuain, co-owner of the two-store, DJ-centric Platinum Records chain, "[patriotism] was this kind of broad concept that everybody had in the back of their minds and held in their hearts. We've just never expressed it before. And now we've been given a reason and a means for expressing, and now it's coming out. It's the whole nation--pride, fervor across the country, sure--but it's something that has always been there."

The flags draped in the Platinum window came from McQuain's business partner, Ali Tabatabaie, an Iranian man who purchased them when he gained U.S. citizenship. But not all Platinum employees are sanguine about the flag's symbolic potency. As one guy in the Seattle store has it, taste is still an important consideration.

"It depends on your perspective," he argues. "I mean, for the first week, what did it mean? It meant 'Jesus Christ, we're all fucked!' Some kind of show of support. I thought it was meaningful at first, but now it just seems like jingoistic, preparing-for-war kind of stuff."

WE'RE ALL IN THIS

Nabil Ayers, co-owner of another independent record store, Sonic Boom in Fremont, never really thought about the flag before the events of two weeks ago. "I don't think anyone our age has ever really taken it that seriously. In 1976 there were all those bicentennial parades. I remember thinking it was a really big deal then, but I was four years old. I really, honestly didn't ever think about what the flag meant to me. And I'm still not sure I know now. I just think it's a cool thing as far as the unity goes. It's not so much that I'm this incredible patriot. I just think it's a good way for people to show that we're all in this."

Talk of unity and support inevitably leads to the question of whether waving America's flag means supporting America's government--or a war, if it comes to that--a distinction which has blurred through the years. During the Vietnam era, displaying the flag basically meant, "My government, right or wrong." But are we all willing to support President George W. Bush, without question, right or wrong? Though neither one voted for him, McQuain and Barnett are staunch, even a little hawkish.

"Whether I agree with my president or not is not the issue," says the owner of the Erotic Bakery. "I'll support my president."

"I'm not a big fan of George Bush," says McQuain, but adds, "I'm pretty open to whatever they decide they need to do, militarily.... Something needs to be done. Unfortunate as that may be, it's just the reality of the times we live in. We need to go out there and do something. And if that includes an armed, manned infantry invasion of Afghanistan, then so be it."

"I don't know that the flag in the window necessarily means we're behind George Bush and whatever decision he makes," says Ayers. "I think [the flag] is more about the other 299 thousand million people out there. For America. Not even for America, just for people. For humanity."

NO WAR

Though they're decidedly less prominent than flags, "No War" signs are popping up around town--the exact same black-and-white signs that went up in certain businesses during the Gulf War. You can see "No War" signs posted in a few shop windows (they're up at Hi*Score on Pine), on placards at demonstrations, even on the cover of last week's Seattle Gay News. When the missiles begin to fly, some of the same people and businesses flying the flag may feel compelled to choose between star-spangled banners and black-and-white signs. Unless, of course, our new feelings of patriotism are truly new, and strong enough to contain both ideas: My country, no war.

It seems clear enough that the epic disjunction between America and American Government is building up to a confrontation. The evidence rests in the mounting unease that accompanies all this talk about a very long, very expensive "secret war" against enemies who cannot be identified. We put up flags to show solidarity for one another in the wake of the attacks. What will we do with those flags when George W. Bush--a man who we all agreed was a dangerous fool when the Supreme Court elected him president--finally shows his hand? Will we have to take them down forever?

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