As I stared at the Bastille one typically gray Paris day, I wondered what would happen if I were to carry an American flag during Paris’s labor day parade. I say parade, but in French the word for parade can also translate into march, protest, or demonstration, probably also into riot if we were to take into account that a French manifestation often results in a riot. The paranoia behind my flag idea clearly made me think of protest, in the sense of raising my middle finger: Surely, me raising my flag would be some sort of protest against some sort of annual parade already set up as a protest.
I was therefore left with the impression that carrying an American flag in a French labor day parade would cause an uproar, or worse. Life here is so complicated.
But then I thought about how I could minimize the provocation by carrying a pro-union flag alongside the American flag. The grayness of the day, however, quickly insinuated itself into my mental state. I imagined instead that I would be shot dead for the gesture. But what gesture? I was not too sure. It occurred to me that it would be unfortunate, but nonetheless representative of my life here as a longtime ex-patriot, that if I could not prove my assassination was the consequence of me carrying an American flag, then no gesture would have been made at all, and thus, like my life, my death would simply go unnoticed.
In other words, before I was (let’s say) shot dead, very few people would have noticed the flag in my hand. And then, after being shot, the flag would simply have slipped out of my hand and fallen among the other debris covering the street. A handful of onlookers might have seen the flag and made the link back to my assassination. They might even have mentioned it to the police, but only nonchalantly. The police might have noted the observation, before closing the investigation. I was therefore murdered – fait accompli, fait divers – for nothing, a stance taken for nothing, except that, perhaps, prior to the killing, some in the parade would have ridiculed my flag-waving gesture, as though I were making light of the march, mocking it; others would have smirked at the deadpan irony of an American taking part in a French Socialist manifestation – ha! – and finally, a few token American tourists and fellow expats might have given their thumbs up before rushing off to their next oh-so-chic Paris event.
That said, my murder could have made the news if only to highlight the plight of the working poor, a disenfranchised people reduced to killing each other.
But I imagined it another way. The headline would go: “American Shot Dead Before Causing Riot”. In this scenario, I would be at the center of a polemic. There would be those in France, especially those on the far left and far right, who would raise the alarm, getting out in the streets the very next week, but not in condemnation of my murder, but against globalization. And France’s political leftovers (the left of center, the right of center, and the center of center) would say nothing. Support from all over the world would come in denouncing the act as barbaric but everybody outside of France would be secretly relieved the story didn’t happen on their shores. And this would surely be another opportunity for more anti-French scorn across the ocean from my fellow Americans. The funeral arrangements would be complicated, to be sure: my large American family would insist on my body being shipped back “home”, expenses paid by powerful lobbyists in Washington. An enterprising member of my family would start a fund called, “They Also Fry Flags in France”, which would collect more money than I had ever imagined making during my lifetime – to think I would have needed to die like this to get rich.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t thought of creating a will before coming to live on foreign soil, let alone before carrying an American flag while here. Maybe I will write one soon, including where I want to be buried, which of course is here, here in my adopted land, despite the flag waving. That’s not irony, that’s just a simple wish to be buried alongside my wife and child in a country where I have lived for more than half my life. My son, though too young to actually understand any of this, would probably agree, arguing that he’d like to visit his father’s grave on a regular basis and that he would later want to lie alongside his dad, whether he be a hero or whatever, a terrorist even.
Am I making this all seem so difficult and complicated? Let’s keep it simple. For the first time ever I had watched an entire French Labor Day parade. It began with the Powers of Old Europe – flat-footed politicians and dying union leaders holding hands and slowing down the raucous set of labored citizenry through the streets. And it ended with a few staggering non-laborers asking for coins while street cleaners with their headsets waved colorless brooms – my flag, alas, not among the scattered debris.
During the parade, I wanted to see at least one American flag, or even count the number of American flags, to see that my idea to carry my own flag was not so unique or bleak. As we watched, my four-year old corrected me on this idea of counting flags, noting that there were so many flags that we could not possibly count all of them. So, to pass the time, we discussed number theory, running through what is countable (coins in my pocket), to what is difficult to count but not impossible (coins in our home), to what is countable but humanly impossible to do so, either because the number is too large (all coins in France) or because the number changes as one counts (the accumulation of capital). Finally, we came upon the question of what is simply not countable (the number of manifs in France, past and future – assuming, of course, that time and inequality are infinite).
So, can we count the flags? I asked him. No, he said, and I responded, Yes, literally fighting back tears. Yes, we can always count flags, but it would take a long time.
What about rain drops? probably not. And garbage? No, but not because there is an infinite number of debris, but because as you count garbage, the shit just keeps piling on … No, I didn’t really say that.
We therefore spanned many difficult notions for a four-year old as well as a forty-year old, but it turned out to be a valuable lesson for the both of us, and probably a lot more interesting than the parade.
I had also in the back of my mind a recent essay about terrorism, which I didn’t think my son needed to know about, so I didn’t bring it up. It was the notion that terrorism is the modern day specter that haunts our everyday lives, and to fight it, we can make use of number theory. The article describes how recent anti-terrorist surveillance systems combine the countability of known terrorists with statistical analyses on big data to estimate the maybe countless but clearly definite number of all terrorists. This system, I just realized, leads us mathematically to an infinite network of big government surveillance. America is apparently already doing this in its infinite wisdom. It’s not clear what France is doing. So I started to wonder who among us was a terrorist. It was indeed a gray and difficult day.
So there we were, my son and I, watching today’s labor day parade, watching every flag from seemingly every country – an American flag one among many. There would be no headline about an American (me) and his flag in this parade. This was an international parade, or march, for all of the world’s workers, and … well, Why hadn’t I thought of that in the first place? Why doesn’t an American recall those famous words, Workers of the world unite? Even us capitalists. I looked at my son, and I stopped myself from explaining all that. Like I could..
I then returned back momentarily to my imagined assassination and wondered silently if my body would be wrapped in a flag, like a soldier’s, having died for my country.
I trace a figure in the drizzle and come up with something far less sharp and captivating than the original. When the rain finally comes and I have given up the charade, I know I will leave behind far more courageous folk than myself. I also do not .. did not dare look at my dear, dear, patient boy who had noticed, as we were making our getaway, many young boys dressed in Spiderman and Superman garb, boys still cheering, as I write this, at large colorful balloons with slogans against austerity.