Thursday, October 23, 2008

Patriot Games

“There are two Americas. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power.”
– J. William Fulbright

J. William Fulbright’s words, written more than 40 years ago, still ring just as true today. I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism lately. It’s come up a lot this election, though in ways that gives me pause, rather than reason to rejoice.

Some (certainly not all) Republicans have a funny idea about what constitutes patriotism. Since the beginning of this presidential campaign, there’s been the usual silly games with flag pins and the like. But this week, as McCain begins to see the writing on the wall, he’s stepping up his game, and taking it to a whole new level of ridiculousness.

Gov. Palin recently stated that there is pro-America and anti-America. She said she liked traveling to small towns because that’s where the real Americans lived. Only in small town America, Palin implied, will you find the true America.

“We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe...that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.”

The implication being, of course, that large cities, especially those on the coasts, were anti-American and un-patriotic. (See The Daily Show response here. As a New Yorker intimately scarred by 9/11, Jon Stewart is entirely within his right, I believe, to say to the Vice President, “F**k you!”).

“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.” – Mark Twain

Soon after Palin’s speech, McCain spokesperson Nancy Pfotenhauer got on television and proclaimed that within Virginia, a state increasingly in play for Obama, there was real Virginia and fake Virginia. ( What exactly is fake Virginia? Probably the same areas that McCain’s brother recently referred to as the “communist” parts.

Southern Republican Congressman Robin Hayes this week said, at a McCain rally, “Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God.”

While warming up the crowd at the same rally, Rep. Patrick McHenry, also a North Carolina Republican, laid out the choice between McCain and Obama, to which someone from the crowd yelled back, “It’s like black and white.”

What can only be described as abject, bigoted hatred has been growing at McCain/Palin rallies countrywide. Far from denouncing such language and actions, the McCain campaign seems satisfied to stay silent and let it continue.

Others take their hate to new levels. One man even went so far as to hang Obama in effigy.

“Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it”. – George Bernard Shaw

If that weren’t bad enough, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed late last week that Barack Obama and his wife Michelle held anti-American views and couldn't be trusted in the White House. In a move that could only remind one of McCarthy witch hunts, the congresswoman called for an official “expose” of members of Congress to “find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.” She also implied that liberalism was fundamentally anti-American.

(Bachmann is almost certain not to have the last laugh. Within 48 hours of her remarks, Bachmann’s congressional opponent, who leads in the polls, netted $640,000!)

“Remember it was Michele Obama who said she is only recently proud of her country and so these are very anti-American views,” Buchmann said. “That’s not the way that most Americans feel about our country. Most Americans are wild about America and they are very concerned to have a president who doesn't share those values.”

“In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first”. – Ambrose Bierce

It appears that each of the aforementioned Republicans operate under the same delusion — that patriotism is a swaggering, smug, superior arrogance, a state of mind that abhors any other view but its own. It is a self-righteousness that divides the country into an us vs. them dynamic — I’m a patriot and you’re not.

However, more often than not, the louder and more vitriolic the patriotism, the more hollow it truly is. When Christ was teaching his disciples how to pray, he told them to go to a private place, away from public eyes. Anything done in public, as the Pharisees were wont to do, manifested as pride and vanity. The same is true for the sort of ostentatious patriotism heralded by so many people today. Patriotism should be humble, not sanctimonious. You have no more virtue or purity than others just because of your views.

A real patriot is a dissenter when necessary, not one who says, “my country right or wrong, my country love it or leave it.” But this is exactly the sort of rabid, jingoistic, xenophobic, divisive excuse for patriotism we have been fed in this country since 9/11. If patriotism means that it’s unacceptable for someone to critique his country, to call it to account for its sins, to question the validity of its actions, to admit that it has made mistakes, than we have a profoundly misguided idea of what patriotism really is.

A great nation remains great precisely because it accepts dissent. We need those who take up the robes of Old Testament prophets and chastise a government for its sins. They are the self-checking mechanisms of society. The 1st Amendment is there to protect dissent precisely because it is so important, even in its crude and often unpalatable forms. Patriotism is problematic. Patriotism is messy. Dissent burns flags, often lives on the extremes, and even, during the most severe moments of history, initiates revolt and revolution. I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would have thought about Bill Ayers?

This country has lost its capacity to be self critical. I like the idea of America so much more than I like America itself. And yet Barack Obama inspires the better angels of my political and patriotic nature. For the first time in many years, I have hope for this country and its aspirations, optimism for the soul of the great experiment that is the American ship of state.

And if that makes it sound as if I am merely echoing the words of Michelle Obama, then so be it. I would rather be chasing the first rays of light in the darkness than be the one snuffing out the lamps and calling it patriotism.

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.” – Teddy Roosevelt


Blogger Brandon said...

Monsters know no party. This from Politico a few moments ago:

The letter 'B'

Here's the most serious actual violence, via (natch) Drudge:

Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Diane Richard tells Channel 4 Action News that the victim was robbed at knifepoint on Wednesday night outside of a Citizens Bank near Liberty Avenue and Pearl Street just before 9 p.m.

Richard said the robber took $60 from the woman, then became angry when he saw a McCain bumper sticker on the victim's car. The attacker then punched and kicked the victim, before using the knife to scratch the letter "B" into her face, Richard said.

Richard said the woman refused medical treatment after the assault, which happened outside the view of the bank's surveillance cameras.

UPDATE: Richard confirms the account to Politico, and says the victim was from Texas, and didn't know the area.

UPDATE: The Pittsburgh press reports the victim was a McCain staffer.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Rhonda said...

Great, great essay, Brandon.
I have said many times - even in a letter to the editor - that this country was founded on the belief that we can and should speak up when we disagree with our leaders. Unlike so many others on this planet, we can disagree with the direction our country is taking without fear that we'll be taken away in the night, never to be seen again. Without fear that we'll be "re-educated" in a gulag camp or victimized in a pogrom.
It's called democracy. It's not anti-patriotic - this IS the greatest country on Earth, but it is not perfect, just as we human beings are not perfect. We just have different ideas about what perfection is.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Rhonda said...

P.S. I don't know what to say about that attack, other than that it is terrible.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

A Pittsburgh police commander says a volunteer for the McCain campaign who reported being robbed and attacked near a bank ATM in Bloomfield has confessed to making up the story. Police say charges will be filed.

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone (a Democrat) recently asked me (a reluctant Republican) to define "liberal." I was shocked and ashamed at what came out of my mouth: Pro-Choice, Anti-gun, socialist leaning... all the kind of crap that Replublicans tend to throw around so freely. She simply said to her, Liberal means progressive. I responded that that is what I think it should mean, but it certainly isn't what I think of when I hear the word.

Is there a progressive party on the ballot?

How does everyone else define the word(s).

I have more to say, but gotta get back to working hard. ;)

5:23 PM  

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