Desecration: City Sues Flag Artists; Lincoln Under Wraps; Ready for Reform | Media | Chicago Reader

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Desecration: City Sues Flag Artists; Lincoln Under Wraps; Ready for Reform

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Desecration: City Sues Flag Artists

Somewhere in the recesses of this city are hidden nine works of art that mess with the Stars and Stripes. You may never see this art. Its makers fear being tossed into jail for violating Chicago's amazing new "Desecration of Flags" ordinance.

Passed last March by the City Council to give handcuffed patriots the tools they need to crush treasonous smart alecks like flag-on-the-floor Scott Tyler, the new law forbids--insofar as we can make it out--22-cent stamps, souvenir replicas of the Iwo Jima monument, and the front page of the Chicago Tribune. And Scott Tyler types are not the only ones who can now be clapped behind bars for six months. Under our majestically impartial ordinance, so might a U. of C. doctoral student from Beijing who in his anguish over Tiananmen Square douses his own country's ensign with ketchup.

This saga goes back a year and a half, to that deathless hour when city officials ripped David K. Nelson's rude portrait of Harold Washington from the School of the Art Institute's walls. In response, about 50 Chicago artists organized the Committee for Artists Rights. After publishing an indignant statement in the Reader, this committee was briefly hard-pressed to think of anything else to do. In ordinary times it would have broken up months ago.

But these aren't ordinary times. Last December, the management of the building at 200 N. LaSalle dealt with a photograph of two nude men, Joe Ziolkowski's contribution to a lobby art exhibit, by wrapping it in brown paper. The new year brought us Scott Tyler and Senator Walter Dudycz, and then Robert Mapplethorpe and Senator Jesse Helms. Far from withering away, the Committee for Artists Rights got bigger and chestier and decided to fight back.

An open call went out to Chicago artists, and in mid-September the Committee launched "Inalienable Rights, Alienable Wrongs," two months of exhibits, debates, performances, readings, and what-have-you. One of the exhibits would consist of nine artworks that put the flag to use, among them Scott Tyler's immortal What Is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?

For a time, the organizers operated under the impression that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last June that flag burning was protected speech gave them all the shield they needed from official harassment. Not so. The Chicago ordinance stood until struck down. "The show has been pretty much in chaos since we found out it was illegal," says Diane Grams, who's cochair of the Committee and also happens to have done one of the nine pieces, See No Evil.

The Committee turned to the ACLU, and a month ago legal director Harvey Grossman wrote Corporation Counsel Kelly Walsh asking for assurance that if the flag show went up the artists and exhibitors, "will not be subject to arrest and prosecution." Walsh responded by going to court. The city's suit named Grams, Tyler, and the other artists as defendants and asked for a ruling on the constitutionality of the Chicago ordinance.

Walsh's position is that a court test is the right way to clear the air. ACLU attorney Jane Whicher thinks not. "The city is not obligated to enforce unconstitutional ordinances. They didn't have to file the lawsuit. We didn't ask the city to sue us," said Whicher. "It was a surprise to us and a shock. This action by the city is gratuitous. It's not friendly at all."

So now the ACLU is asking for a restraining order that will let the flag exhibit go forward while the Cook County Circuit Court ponders the city law's various inanities. "I'll tell you," says Diane Grams, "my worst fears in this case are not the laws. It's the people the laws are giving credence to. That's the problem when you start a mood of intolerance--you give license to people who are extremely intolerant to do whatever they want to do. I've gotten hate letters . . ."

We hadn't seen any of the flag-art pieces that Grams is determined to show the city and we asked her about pictures of them. "It's just as illegal for us to show pictures of the artwork as it is for us to show the artwork," she said gloomily. "It's illegal for me to have it in my possession."

So where is it? we asked.

"It's not in my possession," was all she'd say, sounding like one of those paranoids with something to be paranoid about.

Lincoln Under Wraps

Just for laughs we'll mention Peggy Noonan and Abraham Lincoln in the same breath. Noonan wrote wonderful speeches for Ronald Reagan and Lincoln wrote wonderful speeches for himself.

"It was so exciting to finally see him saying my words written on my typewriter with my hands," Noonan remembers in a memoir that appeared in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Reagan was a breeze to work for. "I would write them and send them in; the President would read them and never complain."

We asked Stanford historian Don Fehrenbacher the other day if the road from Lincoln to Noonan and Reagan represents a certain degradation. Not really, said Professor Fehrenbacher. "What comes out of the White House now comes out of an institution instead of out of a single man. In Lincoln's day the White House wasn't institutionalized. I think Congress allowed him on his payroll one secretary and one messenger."

Fehrenbacher is the editor of a two-volume set of the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln that has just been published by the Library of America. We asked if any of Lincoln's oratory had not survived. Yes, said Fehrenbacher, what's known as "Lincoln's lost speech," his Bloomington address in 1856 to the Illinois convention of the new Republican Party.

"It was one of the most effective speeches of his life," said Fehrenbacher. "It brought them to their feet. And all we have that is reliable is about a one-paragraph newspaper summary of what he said."

We don't know what happened to the "lost speech," but we have a theory. In 1988, when the Bush camp was cruising along behind Willie Horton, Lee Atwater would have anted up plenty to keep the GOP's veritable moral charter under wraps. We told Fehrenbacher of our impression that last year there were two former Republican presidents George Bush bent over backward to keep his distance from. One was Richard Nixon. The other, of course, was Abraham Lincoln.

"There was a time, oh say 30 years ago, when every party wanted to have Lincoln in its corner," said Fehrenbacher. "In the 1930s Roosevelt was accused of trying to steal Lincoln from the Republican Party. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, during the election of 1932, made pilgrimages to Springfield and to Lincoln's tomb.

"But now that you mention it, it seems even Reagan wanted to be associated more with Franklin Roosevelt than with Lincoln."

Fehrenbacher finds this curious. "If you're trying to explain why the Republicans don't mention him anymore--whom do they cite in their own history? The Republicans really don't hark back to the greatness of their own party, do they? They don't quote Theodore Roosevelt and they certainly don't want to quote Herbert Hoover."

Today's candidates have no qualms about parroting the Lincoln who in 1862 rallied Congress behind the "last, best hope of earth." But a persistent undercurrent to the self-congratulatory enthusiasm that sits atop the American psyche is a dark, moral pessimism. The Lincoln of this alienated tradition is better left dead and buried.

"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid," he wrote his best friend in 1855. "As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it; 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, 'all men are created equal except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Did Ronald Reagan ever have days like that? Did Peggy Noonan?

Ready for Reform

Last week, feeling like a real Chicagoan, we voted three times in one election. We voted for the local councils at the grade school and high school in our neighborhood--institutions we had never before set foot in--and also at the magnet school that our youngest daughter attends.

Expecting nothing--for no one attends the neighborhood schools but the less than equal children of "negroes, foreigners, and Catholics" (if they're Hispanic)--we found them to be spanking clean, brightly decorated places. The plaster walls were cracked and turning to powder, but their dignity surprised us. Voters were lined up at both schools. In front of the high school, a half dozen candidates passed out fliers.

We'd volunteered to help out at our daughter's school and reported at 6 AM with two boxes of doughnuts. Any affair that gets you up and out at such an hour has a certain weight to it. Our tasks ran from making coffee and taping up No Electioneering posters to trees a hundred feet or so from the doors to reminding voting parents to ex, not check, their ballots and fold them twice. We performed them with a kind of buoyant gravity.

Everyone who turned out seemed to possess this same sense of adventure. No one could be sure exactly what these new councils would do once we had them, or if they'd actually make Chicago's schools any better. The basic, unchanged problem of far too little money stared us all in the face. The only thing certain was that the old, huge bureaucracy had failed, had failed so massively that out of sheer desperation the people were now permitted to see if they could do better for themselves. Friends of ours were running for the councils at half a dozen schools.

We were reinventing democracy. We felt a little like we thought the Poles must feel, or the Russians.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven E. Gross.

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