Thursday, April 06, 2006

Patriots and Metaphors

I'm not a wave-the-flag kind of guy. Never was. But I'm not a burn-the-flag guy, either.

Criticizing your homeland is a right, in a free country. At times, it rises to the level of a duty. But it is not the only right, and it is not the highest duty. I took my share of that right in the '80s. Yet I never hated where I was from; when I carped against American behaviors it was not because I wanted America to be something else, but because I wanted it to be the best of what I felt it always had been at heart.

I've lived in Europe and loved it, but home is here, and when I called from overseas I wanted to know how the hometown team was doing. It wasn't a choice. I just turned out like that; before 9/11 I barely thought about the nature of patriotism beyond the "last refuge of a scoundrel" cliche. It is that. And it is more. What Chesterton said of the world itself is as true of the smaller parts of it that comprise one's homeland:

A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.

Frost wrote, "The land was ours before we were the land's," but he was writing about the beginning of America. Now the reverse is true.

You love your homeland the way you love family: with quiet affection and admiration punctuated by shouting matches and slammed doors. You know their faults intimately. You piss and moan about them all day for a week, but when trouble comes calling, you know where you stand, without thinking about it. That seems to be me. It may not be you.

I said "family." Not "parents." There's this idea, big with political thinkers, that everyone in the United States regards the government as a sort of parent. The big thinkers get off on the insight that people have two parents and Americans have two parties: Democratic mommies and GOP daddies. Nurturing Mommy and stern Daddy. As if we were 260 million children fretting about potty training.

But a lot of we the people don't think of the government as any kind of parent. It's an unruly child of the people, a creation of, and a function of, the civil society, the voters as a whole, the community. America is our child. Ours to nourish, our responsibility when it breaks something. Ours to believe in, because if you raise a child and you believe in him, he might yet go bad, but if you don't believe in him, he almost certainly will.

"Our country right or wrong" never bothered me. I guess because I always knew the next line was "When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right."

You can listen to criticism of American policies and manners, our national foibles and historical hypocrisies, without being quite sure whether the speaker is engaged in satire -- which ultimately aims to improve the subject -- or sarcasm and cynicism, which only wants to pour salt on wounds and give the speaker a sense of satisfaction. Some people have a fine-tuned radar for that sort of thing, and they can be sure. Before 9/11, I didn't.

But among the startling short-term changes in that crisp September was that the mindless, tiresome domestic gnawing on America by the dispensers of sarcasm and cynicism suddenly became, temporarily, odious and unbearable.

Here's the classic issue of The Onion right after the attacks:

According to Generation X sources, the recent attack on America may have rendered cynicism and irony permanently obsolete. "Remember the day after the attack, when all the senators were singing 'God Bless America,' arm-in-arm?" asked Dave Holt, 29. "Normally, I'd make some sarcastic wisecrack about something like that. But this time, I was deeply moved." Added Holt: "This earnestness can't last forever. Can it?"

On 9/11 it seemed intensely clear to me that, however bad America is, even at its worst, there are far, far worse things in the world than being merely shallow and materialistic and full of a kind of ignorant optimism. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, addressed his fellow Europeans and put it like this before the Islamists killed him:

The dead-poor sheep farmers on Sicily at the turn of the century argued that America must be heaven on earth as emigrated family members relayed messages of having meat for dinner every day. That was a mouthwatering experience for people who could enjoy that privilege maybe once in a lifetime. You can argue that particular instinct to be ‘ordinary’ or ‘superficial’ like so many do here, but it is way beyond me to look down on it. America is hated because it embodies the hope of people that yearn for a better life, to have meat everyday, but also to believe in the God they choose, or not. To say what you want without being persecuted. To be a woman without a veil, with the right to vote, free expression and adultery, without being stoned.

In September 2001, some of us who never went out of our way to wave a flag felt no scruples about putting it in the window, or speaking up in defense of the virtues of this country.

But not everyone. I watched some people who were more horrified by the bloom of patriotic feelings than they were by the murder of 3,000 of their fellow citizens. People stood and tearfully sang "God Bless America," with one hand, gripping a miniature stars-and-stripes, over their hearts, and as my friends watched this scene they literally writhed in an almost physical pain, twisted up like little kids who waited too long to ask to go pee. They couldn't wait for it to be OK again to dump their sarcasm.

Can they stop it, ever? Or is it like a rat's need to keep chewing on something/anything? Is it like a festering inside that forces you to spit bile every five minutes? Yes, there's much to criticize here, in our government and our culture. But when you reveal your complaint is more about some sort of personal psychodrama than it is about political consciousness and a desire to improve the world, then why should I take you seriously?

Stephen Green recently named six things we need (five of them lacking) to win the war we're now in:

If we’re going to win a long, ideological war, we need our primary schools to [teach] our children what patriotism is – and for the most part, they don’t. We need our college professors to give our best and brightest the intellectual ammunition to confront our destroyers – and for the most part, they don’t. We need our public thinkers to defend our laws and our way of life against foreign aggression – and for the most part, they don’t. We need our entertainers to choose the home team – and for the most part, they don’t. We need our politicians to show the backbone of Churchill, but for the most part, they don’t. And we need our military to understand, embrace, and put everything on the line for their country.

The "home team." Normally I despise sports as a metaphor for anything in life, but if there is a legitimate use of such a comparison, it is in warfare. William James, in the title of a pacifist essay, dubbed sports The Moral Equivalent of War, and Stephen Crane wrote the great fictional account of battle in the American Civil War by drawing on memories of the college gridiron at Syracuse. "I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field," he wrote, and the result was so real that a retired Union veteran read the book and was certain he had been "with Crane at Antietam," despite the fact Crane wasn't even born until nine years after that battle.

So ride that metaphor, uncomfortable as I find it, till it breaks down. Certain things grow clear: "Support the troops, bring them home now" = "support the team, forfeit the game." When war comes, you lend your heart and your lungs to the home team. This doesn't mean blinding yourself. Lordy, do I know that: My home team always has been Philadelphia. When they're up 42-0 with three minutes left in the game, some part of you is watching and thinking, silently "I wonder how they're going to blow it this time?" But at the same time, as Tugger said, "You gotta believe."

It doesn't change outcomes. But it defines who you are. And real war is less like the abstraction of professional sports and more like the high school game your kid is playing in. You really want him to do well. You want his team to win -- cleanly and with honor. You might see something amiss on the court or on the field, but before you open your mouth and yell about it, if you're a responsible adult, you stop to think, "is this going to help them win? Should I say something quietly to the coach or the ref, or stand up in the bleachers and shout at the top of my lungs?"

OK, that's probably as far as that metaphor will stretch.

Chesterton was a patriot who opposed an unpopular war by the world's great military power against a ragtag and nasty wolfpack. It's called the Boer War, and it's a subject worth studying in these times. Chesterton tried to step through the landmine between healthy and unhealthy dissent in wartime:

I do not speak (of course) of the anti-patriotism which only irritates feverish stockbrokers and gushing actresses; that is only patriotism speaking plainly. A man who says that no patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.

That is patriotic dissent.

But there is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men...; the man who says, "I am sorry to say we are ruined," and is not sorry at all. And he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor ....

Chesterton calls this kind of anti-patriot by his right name, a "pessimist." And in national affairs they simply act out their attitude toward life in general, rooted in personal psychologies.

Just in the same way the pessimist (who is the cosmic anti-patriot) uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors to lure away the people from her flag. Granted that he states only facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive. It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants to help the men.

The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises -- he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things.

Rabindranath Tagore put the identical thought more succinctly: "He alone may chastise who loves."

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