Emptying a Gesture

How politics is making it harder to grieve in America

A lot of thought goes into the color of cereal boxes.

Corn Pops boxes are red and yellow because, according to extensive market research, that color combination is supposed to stimulate hunger. Frosted Flakes boxes are red and blue because the jarring color combination is supposed to easily draw in the eye, making it easier to find and purchase.

That same principle makes it nearly impossible to miss the rows of American flags that demand the attention of highway drivers or pedestrians walking past government buildings. It’s seemed much harder, recently, to get their message: For months or even years, the flag has seemed to be almost continually at half-mast, drawing attention like a cereal box in a grocery aisle without a specific event to remind us of. Under the weight of so many national tragedies, every instance of lowering the flag has begun to run together.

It doesn’t just feel like that, it’s actually happening: The Obama Administration has ordered flags lowered to half-mast more than any other president. At the time that article was written, the flag had been lowered for 162 days of Obama’s presidency. That was before the attacks in Nice, and was just on the heels of the string of tragedies that need only to be named by their cities of origin: Dallas, Baton Rouge, Orlando, Brussels, Paris, San Bernardino, Paris again. The website Halfstaff.org keeps track of every federal half-staff order, and it shows that the flag was lowered by order of the president for fully 15 of the 31 days of the month of July. That’s not even counting flags lowered in individual states, which can be lowered on a case-by-case basis at a governor’s discretion.

What’s supposed to tie all these tragedies together is their sorrow and anger being held in common by every member of a community. The practice of lowering the flag has been standard in the United States at least since the death of George Washington, the only president to win 100 percent of the Electoral College. It’s accompanied every nation-defining tragedy since, flying behind crowds of people watching President Kennedy’s casket ride past on the street and over the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The lowered flag has paused conflicts in this country in the same way that the Olympics paused wars between ancient Greek city-states.

But lately that sense of the communal nature of American tragedy has started to fray. The decision to set the flag to half-staff is no longer safe from partisan accusations of bad faith: Take the false rumors that the president lowered the flag to honor Whitney Houston’s death while ignoring the murder of several soldiers, which spawned racial dog-whistle Facebook pages like “Half-Mast Challenge; Teach Obama Respect.”

So what changed? It certainly isn’t an undoing of American political consensus — that shiny idea of national unity only ever kept its luster because massive, dissenting chunks of the population were excluded from the conversation entirely. Anyone who says America is any more divided than the days of Shays’ Rebellion or the Haymarket Riots or the Red Scare is either deluded or selling you something.

The real difference, the one that might actually be novel in the history of this country, is the decoupling of rage and progress. In previous decades, when a tragedy prompted the president to order a national lowering of the flag, it came with the reasonable expectation of some direct, responsive action, for better or worse. Kennedy’s death helped President Johnson push the Civil Rights Act through Congress; 9/11 brought wars of retaliation. In terms of political change, the lowering of the flag across the country held the same core significance as the raising of the flag on the battlefield: An action separating the before from the after, the conflict from the resolution and the next step.

Compare that with the last ten years of American tragedy, pockmarked by events that were supposed to prompt some sea change but didn’t. For the left, that defining moment is probably Newtown; for the right, it’s Benghazi. Both moments stopped the nation in terror; both saw the flag brought low; and for both, when the federally mandated period of mourning was over, no policy, no power structure had changed. Grieving Americans were validated in their sense of sorrow and injustice, enticed with some proof they were right—gun proliferation really is out of control; the upper echelons of government really are left unaccountable—and given no sense of progress, through policy or shift in the terms of the debate, to help pay for their pain.

At that moment, commemorating a tragedy becomes a kind of insult. It becomes at once an empty promise to remedy the crisis at hand and a reminder of all the other half-mast tragedies that haven’t been dealt with, for reasons of politics or cowardice or whatever else.

The endless parade of lowered flags — and the blurring together of them all — melts the constant, un-remedied tragedy into one greater one: That American mourning isn’t hardening into a bulwark against future tragedies, like it has in the past. Maybe that’s why it’s hardening into rage in stead.