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925 Silver Collection

Signal Flags and Patriotism (for Memorial Day) By Bill Lasarow

Jasper Johns, “White Flag,” 1955, encaustic, oil, newsprint and charcoal on canvas, 78 5/16 x 120 3/4”. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Visual art is full of images of flags that are more than just flags. They communicate through association, and sometimes that is primarily to be “invisible in plain sight.” From Delacroix to Childe Hassam to Jasper Johns to William Pope.L, signal flags are part of our cultural memory, no matter whether a person has any associations beyond only what they see: a flag and nothing more. That patriotism is the predominant signal is only the beginning because patriotism itself ain’t simple.

Flags inevitably function as unifying political symbols. The American flag, alongside the phrase “from many, one” (e pluribus unum) symbolizes that our national unity comes out of diversity. But it is a public symbol, subject to fair use and free speech rights. I’ve seen one old guy try to literally hump the flag on stage. Ick. Gross. But he sure gets to do it if he wants. Have a good life, dude.

William Pope.L, “Trinket,” 2015, installation view, American flag, flagpole, finial, industrial fans, lighting system, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Of course there are two flags that have bent everyone’s mind over the last week, and well they should have. Both were courtesy of one of the three most activist, arrogant, and partisan Supreme Court justices in American history, all sitting on the Court at the same time. Let me here recommend a book that is a history of horrendously partisan or corrupt members of the Court, Injustices, by Ian Millhiser. Corrupt players and bigots on the highest court is nothing new. One of these three has stayed free of scandal, but two most certainly have not. All nine are surely tempted and courted all the time, meaning that those who do stay free from scandal really have a strong moral compass. That doesn’t mean we should cut those who give in to temptation any slack; this is the Supreme Court, and currently a Justice may only fire themselves. Some people just know how to say “no,” and some do not — worse, they do everything they can to deny owning it. It’s a personal style that withers people’s souls and their moral capacities. Denial is more than just a public act, it is a psychological condition. The two are linked.

Eugene Delacroix, “Liberty Leading the People,” 1830, oil on canvas, 102 1/2 x 128”. Courtesy of the Louvre Museum, Paris.

In the case of these two scoundrels and traitors to the central idea and purpose of America, the public record is so clear and easy to read. They know who their friends are (wealthy autocrats) and what they want from those friends (a luxurious lifestyle with no accountability). But that’s only part of their moral and civic failing. His casual attitude towards two signal flags has marked Samuel Alito not only as a partisan extremist who dumps a whole lot more than his thumb on the scales of justice: He is clearly comfortable with, even dedicated to that role. Guys like Alito are happiest in a world in which people like me, and maybe like you, are at least rendered miserable and powerless. Even better, just not there at all. Their friends in the Alexandria and Jersey shore neighborhoods no doubt share the sentiment; it takes an echo chamber. Of course, not all of their neighbors are their friends.

Robert Longo, “Untitled (California),” 2014, charcoal on mounted paper, 60 x 101 5/8”. Courtesy © 2018 Robert Longo.

The three so-called liberal Justices? They don’t do that kind of shit because they value their personal ethics, conduct, and patriotism. Not for sale baby. But I’ll tell you what. If any turn out to be like Alito or Thomas, they should leave right along with Thomas and Alito. It being Memorial Day weekend as I write this, what an appropriate moment for these two to summon the moral clarity to resign — and more, to declare their renewed allegiance to America. That may be dreaming, but nonetheless theirs are serious, unacceptable breaches for which formal consequences should apply as a matter of law.

All nine of the Justices are uniquely powerful public figures because they are uniquely answerable, legally, to no one but themselves and, to some degree, each other. Thomas and Alito embody the argument that this must change. Adopting last year’s new ethical code so that each is answerable to it in fact, not pro forma, is currently more important than the current document’s flaws. It needs to be made enforceable with no more than minor tweaks, rather than ending up having no effect, even though that smaller measure is not vigorous enough.

Donald Lipski, “Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue (American Flag Ball),” 1990, U.S. flags wrapped around a support sphere, 32” diameter.

I will never understand these people’s capacity for deceit, both public and personal. I will never grasp their ability to deal with their hypocrisies. They absorb them so they seem to just disappear, like they were never there. How do they never appear to feel, or at least acknowledge, shame? I do not get it. What we get instead is that typical and grating aggressive denial. “I’m innocent like nobody has ever been innocent, and you know it.” It is always someone else who bears responsibility, including the wife. And then the crowning behavioral discipline of this new species of homo superior, the ability to lie, not just with a straight face, but with loads of indignant expression! Even when that lie is called out, NOPE, no shame, no apology. “Those 20 women who accused me of sexual assault? All liars, all of ‘em. I’ll sue them all. I am your retribution!”

Hans Haacke, “Collateral,” 1991, shopping cart with silkscreened metal buttons, 33 x 37 1/2 x 20 1/2”. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

If Steve Bannon regards the deconstruction of the administrative state a top priority of the Executive branch, over at the Supreme Court Alito’s task is to eradicate the last century of legal rights and protections. Of regulation protective of the public’s health and safety. Of women and minority groups truly participating in the American dream. Of voting rights and free access to education. Of an open and dynamic culture. Of our right to free assembly. Of a dramatic reduction in poverty among ordinary workers and the elderly. Dobbs immediately went too far but was only the beginning. There have been preliminary elections that have produced “liberal” majorities even in several “red” states. I grew up thinking of “red” as “communist,” kind of a pejorative, right? Now it refers directly to the National Predatory Party, the NPP and the states in which it holds majorities. There are actually still a lot of true Republicans remaining, and they will have something to say about the November election’s outcome.

Keith Haring, “Untitled (Flag),” 1988, serigraph poster, 20 x 28”. Courtesy the Keith Haring Foundation and Gladstone Gallery, New York.

What do you suppose would be the consequence of the Supreme Court reversing Brown v. Board of Education? What, you don’t see that happening? Of course this could absolutely happen, and not necessarily as you or I might think. There is a world in which possession of a Beatles record, a book by Henry Miller, a print by Keith Haring, or a whole array of other artifacts will get you arrested and imprisoned. Oh, and also convicted of, well, some crime or other.

(l.) Inverted American flag at Justice Samuel Alito’s residence on January 17, 2021. Courtesy of the New York Times.
(r.) An “Appeal to Heaven” flag located at Justice Samuel Alito’s New Jersey vacation home, summer 2023. Courtesy of the New York Times.

So today if you will, imagine that world, think about what a fun and delightful place that would be, even if you manage to steer clear of the authorities. Maybe you will stand tall in the middle of a street, AK-47 in hand, dead bodies strewn all around you. If you are on the right team, you could receive a full pardon from your governor even after a jury trial, while your neighbor is serving the entirety of a ten year sentence for driving his daughter across state lines to obtain an abortion. See you in church on Sunday as always, brothers and sisters. Keep you nose clean and praise the Lord, along with Justice Samuel Alito.

Bill Lasarow, Publisher and Editor, is a longtime practicing artist, independent publisher, and community activist. He founded or co-founded ArtScene Digest to Visual Art in Southern California (1982); the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (1987); and Visual Art Source (2009). Most recently he is also the founder and President of The Democracy Chain.

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