By lex, on June 19th, 2006
Something ASM826 wrote in comments the other day, and inspired by the latest bit of insipidity set loose upon an amazed and often embarrassed world set me to thinking:
I have been thinking about this interview since I read about it a few days ago. Patriotism is not a uniquely American trait. Others have held it. It makes the most sense when there is a clash between societies and someone believes that theirs is the superior.
For example: Winston Churchill was questioned by cabinet about negotiating a settlement with Nazi Germany, and his reply was, “ if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Not much question where he stood, eh? No matter what problems his country had, compared with the alternative he thought Britain was better. Not much question where U.S. patriots stand, either. This country is better. The things we share and believe are better. Even our problems are better.
Flying the flag, loving my country, and feeling contempt for people who can, see the obvious value of the things that I love about the United States isn, pandering. It‚Äôs my personal response, welling up out of who I am.
Noble sentiments to my lights, but learned behavior too – we are not born loving our land and laws, our kith and kin, it is taught to us. Or else it is not.
In the Old Country, for far too many bloody years, patriotism at the common level was all tied up in mythical narratives of blood and soil. But over here, it has for well over a century been impossible to speak meaningfully about the “American race” – the idea itself is risibly non-descriptive, useless. While Teddy Roosevelt might have used the term to illuminate the naval war of 1812 in the latter quarter of the 19th century, his youthful enthusiasm – he was only 23 at the time – can be forgiven as an author’s attempt to link the dominant culture of the US combatants to their British progenitors. Even then, although the patrician TR may not have been aware of it, there never really had been an “American race” and most of us grew up learning the allegory of the melting pot.
Nor have we ever spoken of a “fatherland” or a “motherland.” Yes, “this land is my land,” but it is also “your land.” It “belongs to you and me,” the song concludes. As children we were taught to sing of spacious skies, of amber waves of grain, of purple mountains majesty – but we were taught to consider these things blessings more than birthrights. We hadn’t earned them – we were lucky to have them.
These are the birthrights we were taught to know, those our forefathers bled for and died for and handed down to us in trust, those we were supposed to stand up for and defend ourselves when called to, lest we be proven faithless and unworthy: A government of the people and for the people; a system of laws, not men; freedom, justice and democracy – big ideas, and in the course of human history, by no means inevitable ones.
Along with these privileges we were taught responsibility, the sense that Providence would not have provided so many blessings to so few people without the expectation of something in return. “To those whom much is given, much is expected,” we were taught.
Our politicians told us that we were a “city on a hill,” destined in some way not merely to cast off our own yokes, whether those be the rule of foreign tyrants, or the shameful national birth stain of human bondage, but to also provide the light of that freedom to others. Whether to do so by force of example, active opposition to tyranny or passive moral support to the oppressed have been the questions that have framed our debate about international policy ever since. As has, in the interest of full disclosure, a cool and rational calculation of national interest: Ours was ever a mercantile country, and in such a place there is no inherent contradiction in “doing well while also doing good.”
But somewhere along the way we stopped teaching these things. Somewhere along the way we lost control of the narrative thread, who we are, what we mean. This is not just a function of conscience-numbing post-modernism or moral relativism, although these certainly played their roles. We lost the plot because, in an earnest attempt to understand the whole of our history, the bad as well as the good, we somehow allowed the former to overwhelm the latter. The westward expansion that was once a tale of national energy and drive instead became exclusively a narrative of native genocide. The revolutionary birth of representative democracy is overshadowed for many by the Founder’s tolerance of slavery. Our idealistic notion of a melting pot gave way to a pealing angelus calling for us all to bow down at the new altar of diversity. Gratuitous myth-puncturing and a noble attempt to celebrate our variety has had the unfortunate side-effect of politicizing groups of hyphenated-Americans through identity politics – a zero-sum brand of unseemly trough muscling which depends for its existence upon highlighting differences and stoking grievances and which acknowledges no shared values or indeed, shared virtues.
In the meantime, our national failure to perfectly accomplish the nobility of our best aspirations – without asking of ourselves, “who has done better?” – became the dominant focus of our cultural elites, first in the academy and then filtering down even to grade school itself: “Freedom and democracy?” the elites might scoff – “What about slavery?”
“A bloody civil war to free them? What about Jim Crow?”
“The civil rights movement? What about economic disparity?”
“The great society? What about equality of outcome? Single-payer health care? Gay marriage rights?”
We now move, the greater battles being safely won, on a continuum from vaulting great ideals to increasingly specific policy proposals – proposals whose increasingly trivial stakes and the viciousness with which they are debated bring to mind Henry Kissinger’s observations about academic quarrels. And all the while, there are those who were never taught, or never learned, to love the ideals enshrined in the big ideas, nor to value the system which made them possible – not merely for those of us who “like where we live,” but also to hundreds of millions of other peoples whose freedoms were purchased by American blood and treasure, and the captive millions more who are energized by that vision of a city on a hill, no matter how imperfectly realized.
So it is such that while discussing with my wife the pleasant news of Zarqawi’s demise in the Mesopotamian desert, my 15-year old daughter can repeat something she had heard in school about an “eye for an eye” leaving the whole world blind. “But honey,” I replied, “He was a brutal thug who killed thousands of innocent people.”
“Oh, I didn’t know.”
And it’s probably my fault – I have served the flag so long that praising its virtues at home feels like unseemly personal boasting. And too, as a warrior who has seen much of the rest of the world, I have tried to protect her from the darkness I have seen there.
And no one told her at school.
As service members, sworn to support and defend the Constitution, we are taught not to take for granted past victories, nor past battlegrounds. We are taught that nothing worth having can long survive unmolested if undefended. We are aware that, with an enemy in the field dedicated to our submission or destruction, it’s a poor time to forget what it is we stand for, and why it’s worth defending.
We are reminded that this must still be taught.
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace–but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death! — Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775