By Lisa Bergson Normally, I don't mix politics with work. It's just one of those divisive, personal things, like religion, that is better parked at the office door. I long ago ceased wearing political buttons or putting bumper stickers on my car, things that might alienate my employees, many of whose views I perceive to be more conservative than my own. Mostly white, male, working-class and upwardly mobile suburbanites, they don't glean their news from The New York Times or CNN and tend to see the world as a hostile, dangerous place. September 11 only reinforced that view.
It changed me too, of course. Moved by our country's trauma and resilience, shaken by my husband's near brush with death it was pure chance that kept him from his office in the south tower of the World Trade Center that day I donned a patriotic ribbon and placed a flag outside our plant. "We should have had it all along," remarked Tom Mallon, our executive vice-president. of sales & marketing.
MEMORIES OF A MASSACRE. It wasn't a very large flag, and it wasn't particularly suited to the outdoors. Halfway through its second winter, it was looking fairly ratty, and I felt we needed something more in keeping with our new, modern facade. So before I left for a ski vacation last month, I asked our purchaser, Lisa Nyce, to order two sizable outdoor flags, one for each side of the doorway. I thought it would look nice. But nothing is without political implications at a time when our President says we're either with 'em or agin' em. (It always amuses me the way conservatives have seized upon the political rhetoric of the late '60s and early '70s. In this case, I believe it was Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver who posited, "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem.")
Lisa liked the assignment, I could tell. After September 11, we held a memorial ceremony at the plant. Standing in a big circle, some of us read preselected snippets of poetry, generally connoting peace, as we took turn lighting one another's candles. It was Lisa, who, upon her turn, called out, "God bless America!" Once all our candles were lit, we stood and listened to a commemorative recording made by an employee's teenage daughter. In a young, slightly wavering, but sweet voice, she sang:
Little did she know she'd kissed a hero
Though he'd always been an angel in her eyes
Putting others first it's true
That's what heroes always do
And now he doesn't need a pair of wings to fly
TARNISHED INNOCENCE. Our candles glowed as we stood in hushed silence in the middle of the factory. I realized I didn't know how to end it. We aren't the kind of touchy-feely crowd to dissolve into a group hug or chant "om" in unison. But something of that ilk, something that eluded me, was clearly called for. It was Lisa, who finally spoke, her voice strong and raspy: "Let's roll."
A lot has changed since those days of innocent solidarity. Traveling in Asia and Europe, right after September 11, I found abundant concern and sympathy. It didn't last long. Ever since Afghanistan, we've regained our image as greedy, domineering bullies, with no understanding of other regions and their history. I fear that our decision to launch a so-called preemptive attack on Iraq will not only reinforce that perception, it may also lead to backlash that will make the fate of the Twin Towers look tame.
Returning from the slopes, I confront my two new flags, hung face-to-face on either side of the front entrance. "They're not bookends," I tell our operations vice-president, who was hell-bent on invading Iraq from the get-go. He immediately reverses the flip-side Old Glory. At least both flags are hung correctly.
FOR ALL TO SEE. Now, it's only me who's askew. Just because I have two giant flags framing my plant doesn't mean I support the war anymore than they make us a car dealership. Just because I oppose the war doesn't mean I don't love my country. Indeed, the more I travel, the greater my appreciation for this land and the freedom we enjoy. It's my flag, too.
But, a close friend sees it differently. "The flag implies you're for the war -- that's the message," he admonishes. "It doesn't make sense for you to display it if that's not what you believe."
I decide to get a peace flag and hang it in the middle. Then my message will be unmistakable. "We're going to wind up looking like the tavern on the corner," I kid Lisa. (The local strip bar is notorious for more than one reason: The owner plasters its exterior with rainbow stripes, a large American flag, and signs bearing his own political rants.)
"It's your company," she sighs, adding: "I'm for world peace, but I think we may have to go into Iraq."
"No peace flag, no American flag," I respond.
Now, however, I have both framing the entranceway. The peace flag she selected is new to me. It looks like an American flag, only the stars are arranged in a peace symbol. It's not very large, nor is it particularly suited to the outdoors. Still, it looks like we'll have it out there for a while. Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at email@example.com