It’s Flag Day, and you know what that means. Whether your neighbor agrees is less certain.
It happens every year. The flag is supposed to be a symbol for all Americans, but in a polarized country, Americans can’t possibly agree on what that symbol is trying to say, whether it’s liberty or hegemony or empathy for the oppressed. We’ve been conditioned to feel a sense of collective ownership over the flag, and that compels each side to fight for its interpretation — in front-porch displays of patriotism and, of course, in hashtagged tweets.
This year, though the skirmishes look the same as ever, something else is different. This year, the day before flag day, there was a raccoon.
The critter in question caught national notice when it began to scale a 25-story Minnesota skyscraper late Tuesday morning. By lunchtime, the raccoon (a female, it was later revealed, though onlookers initially misgendered her) had reached floor 12. On floor 22, she stopped to take a midafternoon nap. An array of rescue strategies, including extraction by drone, were explored and discounted as impossible. She had to reach the roof, or . . . kersplat.
Reader, she did it.
The raccoon would not stop for death, and when she completed her climb she was rewarded with a can of cat food and her release into the wild. The country, which had tracked her progress and prayed for her survival on Twitter, celebrated her victory. Dissent was next to nonexistent.
It’s not that Americans everywhere didn’t manufacture narratives around the St. Paul raccoon to suit their personal and political fancies, much as they do with the flag. They did. The raccoon, like the nation, faced an existential crisis, but she kept going up and up and up and came out unscathed, said some. Our compassion toward her is the same compassion we should feel for those seeking asylum, said others. No, a Fox News commentator argued, the raccoon was Congress, helpless to act against the overreaches of presidents from either party.
But somehow, it didn’t matter what anyone thought the raccoon meant. Everyone was rooting for her anyway. A literal garbage animal was bringing us together when the high-flying flag, proud representation of the American spirit, tears us apart. Why?
The flag is a symbol designed to spark a narrative. It’s a piece of cloth covered in stars and stripes that has no meaning on its own, and was up to the American people to turn that into a mythos — a tale of military might, or freedom from tyranny, or the first leveraged in service of the second.
The raccoon, on the other hand, is a narrative turned into a symbol. The facts are there: An animal that eats trash and usually only appears in daylight when it has rabies emerged instead to climb a building. You can turn her climb into whatever you want, but the reality remains that you’re talking about whether an innocent creature attempting a remarkable feat lives or dies.
The story of the Paris “Spider-Man,” a Malian immigrant who plucked out of danger a child dangling from a balcony worked the same way: An argument over immigration lurked in the background, but no one, in the moment, wanted that toddler or his rescuer to fall.
We don’t believe in the same American story. Some despair at our current predicament because they believe America under the Trump administration — where immigrant children are ripped from their parents and dictators are saluted while the media is cast as a public enemy — isn’t actually America. The president’s supporters say this is America, and America at its best. And still others say America was never great to start with.
These days, really, we don’t agree on many stories at all. Think-pieces aplenty explain how we’ve entered a post-truth environment. Either an independent FBI is the last bulwark against authoritarian rule, or it is an instrument of a malicious deep state set on destroying the president and preserving the power of the liberal intelligentsia. The media does its best to tell the truth every day, or it conspires, illuminati-style, to fleece the populace. President Trump is either a threat to our democracy, or he embodies everything our flag stands for.
No wonder we’re looking, in a landscape of relentless discord, for something we can all agree on. A raccoon tried to climb a building more than one thousand times its height. We all watched. She made it to the top.