True patriots

There have been two things bothering me recently: the frighteningly jingoistic proposal to fly 86 American flags along The Esplanade 365 days a year and the proliferation of SUVs in Chico and our society at large. The question: How to tie together the two seemingly disparate subjects into one cohesive column? What do they have in common, besides being really bad ideas? Patriotism, baby, pure and simple. Let me explain.

With this vision of flags along The Esplanade flying in our faces, one thing is clear: The true level of patriotism is not measured by the number of flags you can force a City Council to erect under threat of raising “are you some sort of pinko?” suspicions. No sir. It’s not patriotic to put the four conservative Chico councilmembers, who dare not vote against the flag for fear of offending a large portion of their constituency, in such a spot. It’s more along the lines of redbaiting. And I must also ask the fellows behind this nutty idea, Larry Juanarena and Ed Regan, to recall the photos they’ve surely seen of streets of 1930s Berlin lined with hundreds of Nazi flags. Come on fellas. This flag madness must stop. I know you mean well. Larry tried to do this a few years ago by offering to sell flag-stand kits to local merchants. Few showed interest. So he came back before the City Council. But you get the feeling that for those who hesitate to approve, a finger is pointed with the accusation (apologies to the original Star Trek): “You are not one with Larry.” If this is patriotism, I want nothing to do with it.

There is, in my humble opinion, a better way to measure patriotism, and that is by looking at what a person uses for transportation. If putting your country’s interests first counts for anything, I would place those who rely on mass transportation at one end of the patriotism spectrum and those who drive air-polluting, gas-guzzling, OPEC-dependent SUVs at the other. According to the Harper’s Index in the April issue, if SUVs’ average fuel efficiency were increased by just three miles per gallon, daily oil consumption in America would drop by 49 million gallons. That is about seven million gallons more than the daily yield expected from drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There is a story by Paul Roberts, also in the latest Harper’s, called “Bad Sports: Or how we learned to stop worrying and love the SUV.” Read it and you’ll join the anti-SUV bandwagon. You’ll suddenly notice that SUVs are everywhere. In fact, they are so popular that neither Congress nor the White House will move to force improved fuel efficiency. (Plus, of course, the auto and oil industries are pretty powerful voices in Washington.) So I argue that anyone who uses more than his or her fair share of our country’s store of fossil fuels is less patriotic than those who make efforts to conserve. My formula, therefore, places most environmentalists on the more-patriotic end of the spectrum. Or so you would think.

This past weekend I watched as a mammoth maroon SUV—a Ford Excursion or Excelsior or Exalted Ruler of the Universe or something like that—pulled up and parked along Third Street. I waited for the driver to emerge and climb down the considerable distance from the driver’s door to the street. I expected a yup talking on a cell phone. Boy, was I stunned to see instead a local attorney known for his work on behalf of the environment. But there he was getting out of one of the most offensive symbols of conspicuous consumption we have. A few days later I told this story to bicycle activist Ed McLaughlin. Ed, of course, thinks any vehicle with more than two wheels is an affront to humanity. Ed said when he attended the annual Butte Environmental Council banquet, he noticed no shortage of SUVs in the parking lot. So, I guess, to hell with the Butte County meadowfoam, the fairy shrimp, vernal pools and spotted owls. It’s all a scam, I tell ya. It’s a game we play, posing as environmentalists while we drive to fund-raising banquets in fossil-fuel-burning, poison-emitting, two-ton metal boxes. See those redwoods over there? Turn ’em into patio decks. Let’s build more highways. More pavement, I say! More places to drive our SUVs. I’m going to get a real big one, fly an American flag from its antenna and get a personalized license plate that reads, "PATRIOT."