Flag Hags

Last week, we endured much righteous huffing and puffing over the shocking fact that Barack Obama does not wear an American-flag lapel pin, briefly shifting the national debate from "Is Obama black enough?" to "Is Obama red, white and blue enough?" Now, some on the Right are attempting to gin up another controversy by questioning the patriotism of the Google logo.

Google, as I understand it, is an obscure but quite helpful "search engine" used by "the kids today" to explore "the Internet" for "pornography". Those few of you who have utilized this service may have noted that the website's logo will sometimes be cleverly altered to mark notable events. On Halloween, for example, the "oo" might be replaced by two jack-o'lanterns. For National Teacher Day, the logo was shown as if drawn on a chalkboard. On the quirkier side, painter Edvard Munch's birthday saw the logo incorporated in a recreation of "The Scream" while, for the birthday of Louis Braille, the logo was presented in the Braille alphabet - ironically, a visual gag which could not be directly appreciated by the blind.

But the Los Angeles Times reports that some among our country's perpetually-infuriated class have blasted last week's transformation of the logo's lower-case "g" into a representation of Sputnik, the Soviet Union's artificial satellite which was launched fifty years ago and ignited the space race. How, some fumed, could Google honor an achievement by them evil Rooskies when they had never altered the logo to mark Memorial Day or Veterans Day?

The Times quotes Joseph Farah, editor of WorldNetDaily.com, thusly:

"When they ignore Veterans Day and Memorial Day, I think they're telling us something about the way they view America."

Actually, I think this tells us more about how WorldNetDaily views everything. Wherever they look, they must find evidence of hatred for our country, even in the logo for one of the most astonishingly successful brands American capitalism has ever produced. I guess those who foam at the mouth over the nefarious "War on Christmas" need something to fixate upon and blame for the downfall of all-that-is-decent during the calendar's eight remaining non-Christmas months. (Seriously, how can there be a "War on Christmas" when stores are already stocked with holiday merchandise in September? I understand that, in keeping with this year's absurdly protracted election season, many retailers have already put up their decorations for Christmas 2008.)

I could understand the outrage if we all went a-Googlin' next Memorial Day and discovered that the double-o had been replaced by the heads of Hitler and Mussolini. But all they're doing is leaving their logo as is! You'd think that Republicans, long considered the party of big business, would hesitate to interfere with a company's internal decisions on something like how it depicts its brand name. After all, there's no constitutional requirement that Google must modify its logo for every national holiday. Yet.

In the Times piece, Google spokeswoman Sunny Gettinger notes that the company's modified logos "tend to be lighthearted and often scientific in nature. We do not believe we can convey the appropriate somber tone through this medium to mark holidays like Memorial Day."

Sounds reasonable to me, especially when you think of the furor generated in 2004 when Ted Koppel and Nightline dared to devote an entire episode simply to the names and faces of our troops who had died in Iraq. But Google's spin doesn't wash for some.

One website, zombietime.com, even held a contest to design a respectful Memorial Day Google logo, in order to prove "that the company's ridiculous 'excuse' is nothing but a smokescreen." To learn what the proprietor of zombietime felt was hidden behind that smoke, I ventured to Little Green Footballs for an unexpurgated version of the e-mail interview the LA Times conducted with the site's proprietor, who boldly lurks behind the pseudonym "zombie". While not initially offended by the Sputnik tribute, "zombie" stated:

(I)t becomes offensive when considered in context of what Google won't commemorate. There was no special Google logo on July 20th to mark mankind's first landing on the moon. Google did not commemorate Mariner 4, the first spacecraft to explore another planet, nor Pioneer 10, the first human object to exit our solar system into the universe beyond. And so on. Why not? Because those were American achievements... It's not that Google failed to note a holiday; it's that their failure to do so gives us a glimpse into the company's anti-American mindset, a concrete manifestation of their bias.

As a quick glance at Google's gallery of altered logos demonstrates, the site DID note the first lunar landing with a special design on July 20, 2005, as well as the Spirit landing on Mars (January 15, 2004), the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight (December 17, 2003) and the birthdays of such homegrown achievers as Ray Charles, Andy Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Oh, and every July 4th, the logo becomes downright in-your-face Stephen-Colbert American, incorporating the Stars and Stripes and such icons as the Liberty Bell, the bald eagle and the Statue of Liberty. A-ha! You see how insidious they are? The Statue of Liberty was a "gift" from that most hated of all peoples, the French! Lady Liberty is probably a Trojan Horse, just biding her sweet time in New York harbor for a century or two, until one dark night when she can spring socialized medicine upon a slumbering nation.

"Zombie" does raise an issue which is worthy of discussion, though:

Google has become more than just a company: it's become the gatekeeper of knowledge. So their responsibility to be unbiased is much greater. When the information gatekeeper has an agenda, they can have a huge influence on the course of society... It's been documented repeatedly by conservative and neo-con bloggers that Google includes all sorts of marginal and partisan 'news sources' in its news index, just so long as they are left-wing or anti-American; yet they intentionally exclude many conservative or pro-American sources which in many cases are more reliable or popular.

I leave it to others who are better informed than I am to debate whether "zombie's" claims of Google's bias are any more accurate than the allegations that Google's modified logos ignore American accomplishments. I do agree that, as consumers, we should always be mindful of any slant given to the purported truth, whether our source is the New York Times or the New York Post, Fox News or ABC, Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh. But when a search for the word "Hannity" generates over a million hits, that suggests to me that conservative voices have not exactly been expunged from the Google universe.

As a matter of fact, do you know how I came upon those lengthy quotes from "zombie" on Little Green Footballs?

I Googled.

This whole discussion of logos and flag pins would be silly if there weren't so many people who do take it seriously. It's the same kind of simplistic button-pushing which leads to the periodic reintroduction of a constitutional amendment to wipe out that scourge of everyday civil society, flag burning. Why, I hear tell you can't drive through Berkeley or Madison without seeing a buncha hacky-sackin' hippies setting Old Glory ablaze in the middle of the street, then putting out the fire by peeing on it. I'm pretty sure Michael Moore heats his palatial mansion with a huge flag-burning furnace.

Symbols do have power, but what's important is to honor the values they stand for, not to fetishize the symbols themselves. In Tuesday night's televised Republican presidential debate, only two of the candidates wore flag pins: Fred "Are we done yet?" Thompson and Rudy "Excuse me, my wife's calling about 9/11" Giuliani. Did this mean that the remaining flagless contenders onstage were traitorous bastards? Hardly. No more than one would claim that a celebrity who, a decade ago, did not opt to wear the de rigueur red ribbon to an awards ceremony was therefore pro-AIDS. If you want to wear a flag on your lapel, fine. If not, to quote Clarence Thomas, "Whoop-de-damn-doo."

The absence of a flag pin does not denote the absence of patriotism. Nor does the presence of a flag pin indicate the presence of integrity and honesty, any more than, say, a clerical collar is an absolute guarantee of moral rectitude. One can find a flag pin on the lapel of Tom Delay on the cover of his book, of David Vitter on his Senate website, and of Larry Craig in his airport mugshot.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose birthday was saluted with a tasteful Google design on January 16, 2006):

I have a dream that we will one day live in a nation where we will be judged by the content of our character and not by the tschotschkes on our lapels.