Colors Into Battle

Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today.  We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.

Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country.  I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House.  With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do.  After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.

Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”.  This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats.  However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November.  All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.

It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated.  Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were.  They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them.  Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.

Detail of "Follow the Flag" U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917) Library of Congress, Washington DC

Detail of “Follow the Flag” U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917)
Library of Congress, Washington DC

That Touch of Autumn

Did you feel it this morning, that touch of Autumn?

Those of us in the Nation’s Capital woke up to temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s – that’s in the 12-16 degree range, for my non-American readers.  With low humidity and a crispness in the air, it was the first real sign that Fall is on the way.  Yes, it will be hot and humid later, and yes, it will be hot and humid all weekend for those of us who did not have the possibility of getting out of town this weekend for the Labor Day holiday.  However, this morning was quite the preview of coming attractions, since for me Autumn is the absolute best time of year to be in Washington.

It’s rather appropriate that this first hit of Autumn to come fell today, when the Church remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  You’ll remember from the Bible how St. John was executed when Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, asked for the prophet’s head as a reward for her dancing.  Like Salome, this is the time of year when the Earth, in this part of the world, begins to drop her veils, one by one, until by Winter she is completely bare.

Now for those of you who are “Team Summer”, and who like this scrivener live in an area with distinct seasons, this is the worst of all possible worlds, I know.  You enjoy being sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt.  You enjoy being attacked by insects, or being stuck in transit/traffic for hours when the air conditioning doesn’t work.  You enjoy the chaffing of sandals or flip-flops tearing up the back of your heels, or constantly adjusting those shorts that bunch up when you sit down.  In other words, you like to suffer.

For the rest of us, deliverance is at hand.

It’s soon time for clothing where anyone can both look good and feel comfortable, not just the genetic anomalies.  Drinks can be lingered over and savored, rather than rushed down before the ice melts.  The food will be flavorful and filling and bountiful, not limited by the phrase, “It’s so hot I’m not really hungry.”

There will be celebrations to prepare, requiring far more attention than the three Summer holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, which generally involve, at best, a trip to the grocery store for some burgers and buns, and not much else.  Yet as Autumn gets underway, Halloween leads to Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leads to Advent, and Advent leads to Christmas. Many of us even get Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day thrown in for good measure, just to have some extra time off or a change of pace.

Now be assured, I’m not forgetting the importance or the significance of any of these holidays, before someone starts to complain.  Rather the simple truth is, Autumn is a time for celebration. We gather in the products of the land, and we enjoy the hard work that went into growing them, and we have very fun ways of going about doing so which do not involve the charade of pretending that we can still live out in the open air like our ancient ancestors did, so long as we have enough propane for the grill and citronella for the tiki torches.

No, give me the cold honesty of Autumn over the pretend joys of Summer any day.  The Fall reveals character. I’m looking forward to seeing the colors of the geology and chemistry of the planet, now hidden under a mask of chlorophyll.  As growing things go dormant, each leaf reveals a uniqueness belied by the uniform green, no two the same.  We see things as they are, not in uniformity but in a huge range of colors and shades of colors, everything from scarlet red to mustard yellow to deep purple.

And similarly, when we can all get out of the blazing sun and actually sit down and see each other, without the need for sunglasses or umbrellas or the like, the chill causing us to draw a little bit closer together for warmth, I believe we’ll all be the better for it.

Detail of "Salome Dancing Before Herod" by Gustave Moreau (1876) Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Detail of “Salome Dancing Before Herod” by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

 

Why Being A Good Editor Matters

I heard on the radio this morning that Ben Bradlee, Executive Editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate era, turns 93 today.  If you’ve ever seen “All The President’s Men”, you’ll remember Jason Robards’ turn as Mr. Bradlee, which won the actor an Oscar.  At one point in the film, Bradlee raises questions about his reporters’ source for an article, but then realizes that he must trust them to do their job properly.  “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters,” he admits, “which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody. Run that baby.”  One wonders what Mr. Bradlee thinks of that trust level today, or indeed, what Perry White would think of it.

News that a rare, pristine copy of the first comic book to feature Superman sold for $3.2 million this weekend has generated a substantial amount of media reporting over the last couple of days.  Unfortunately, the rush to report also generated numerous errors in grammar and punctuation, enough to make any high school English teacher go into paroxysms of rage.  At the same time, the hurried storytelling has revealed, once again, that too many news outlets are committing factual errors in the urge to upload.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this piece from MTV News, for example.  Opening with poor verb-subject agreement (“statistics” is plural in this instance, not singular) is not a good omen for what’s to come.  I realize that many of my readers and followers have a problem with my pointing out this sort of thing.  However, errors in grammar and punctuation do make a difference.  This is a fact made all the more apparent when reading a bullet point like this:

4. This debut issue features the first appearance of Superman, alias Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

When you do not put a comma after “Clark Kent”, the headline becomes rather different, as I think you’ll agree.

Then there are the obvious research and reasoning issues with this piece.  For example, the author’s statement about Christopher Reeve being the first to play Superman on the silver screen is simply wrong.  Not only was there a live-action Superman series shown in movie theatres back in the 1940’s, in addition to animated cartoons, but George Reeves played Superman in the first feature film about the character in 1951.

The piece concludes with Reason No. 5 for the price of this very expensive comic book.  The author explains that Superman was originally an orphan, and that neither the Kents nor Kansas were mentioned at first in his mythology.  I’ll choose not to split hairs over the Last Son of Krypton being an orphan, and instead focus on the real problem with this assertion.  It isn’t so much that it could have been phrased better, but the fact that it’s irrelevant to the story.  It’s a bit like saying that a Francis Bacon painting sold for tens of millions of dollars because his last name also happens to be Twitter’s favorite pork product.

Of course, I don’t mean to pick on this individual writer, per se.  The real issue in my mind is whether anyone at MTV News actually does any editing, given that they let this piece be published as-is.  Keep in mind, this is just one, short piece on a pop culture subject, so one has to ask oneself what else are editors at major media outlets allowing to slip past on more serious matters.

Trying to put out a well-written, well-researched story is more important than simply throwing information onto the digital wall as quickly as possible, and hoping that at least some of it sticks.  Without common writing standards, and the enforcement of those standards by editors, writing becomes a kind of free-for-all, in which no one may point out anyone else’s faults.  Yet if you don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, how am I ever going to get better?

If you write online, you have just as much responsibility to your readers when you hit “publish” as a newspaper or book publisher does.  If you expect your online readers to pay attention to what you’re about to tell them, then you have to be authoritative, and back it up with facts.  You also have to command the language, rather than either allowing language rules to intimidate you, or pretending that they don’t matter when they most certainly do.  Just because blogging is a new form of media, doesn’t mean that you should be allowed to escape the virtual red pen of a good editor.

Clark Kent could have snapped Perry White like a twig, if he wanted to.  Nevertheless, he respected his editor, and followed his orders when it came to writing a story.  Let’s all try to aspire to good writing and good editing in following that example, even if that means being corrected for mistakes, so that we can improve upon the writing powers we already have.

Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein  Panel from Action Comics #288 "The Man Who Exposed Superman" (1962)

Panel featuring Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein
Action Comics #288 “The Man Who Exposed Superman” (1962)