Thursday, July 01, 2004

Happy Fourth of July

The big holiday weekend of the year is fast approaching here in the United States. Up here in Maine, the sun has been shining and the air is warm, and our thoughts are turning to a long weekend of parades, fireworks, and relaxation.

One thing is certain in this time of war; the nation’s celebrations will be dripping in patriotic fervor. It will take many forms, from the flag festooned floats winding their way down Main Street to fireworks thundering over Washington DC while George Bush demands we “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

I say time of war because despite the return of limited sovereignty to a hapless gaggle of former exiles, 130,000 American troops still patrol the streets of Iraq, killing and dying for a lie. Meanwhile, across Asia in Afghanistan, forgotten thousands will celebrate the Fourth in dusty firebases as the former Northern Alliance destroy their own country outside the barbed wire.

What outlets does our President suggest for our patriotic energies? How does he want us to put our shoulders to the wheel for this great national endeavor? He doesn’t want us to emulate our soldiers by sacrificing, but by driving Humvees. He doesn’t want us to invest in war bonds; instead he wants us to spend our tax cuts on junk. He doesn’t want us to ask ourselves the tough questions that will lead us out of this time of strife, he wants to have the FBI check up on our book choices and web surfing habits. As Bill Maher said in When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Bin Laden, putting a flag on your car is literally the least you can do, and that’s exactly what the Republicans are asking of us.

“Ah!” You say, “Blaming the Republicans for the inappropriate orgy of consumption that is making a mockery of our claim to be the light of the world is like blaming McDonalds for making us fat. You cannot blame the pusher for the habit, my friend.” To you I say, that argument holds about as much water as an octogenarian with a bladder complaint. The media isn’t holding up its end of the bargain and is failing to subject the administration to appropriate scrutiny (screwing Monica Lewinsky is apparently a lot more worthy of investigation than screwing the American people); Congress by virtue of being held by the President’s party is an unquestioning lap dog more fixated on gay marriage than our wars; and our “Government of CEOs” has a vested interest in diverting us from the hard questions into the warm embrace of Best Buy.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Sacrifice, humility, and effort are hard things to ask of the richest, most luxurious, and most naive society on earth. Throughout his life, Bush has never been one to jump first into the breach, but rather is more like the leader described by Gilbert and Sullivan, who:

“In enterprise of the martial kind,
When there was any fighting,
He led his regiment from behind,
He found it less exciting.”

Simply put, we need a Roosevelt but have a Hoover.

At this point, those who know me will be pooh-poohing all of this. “How can you lay claim to an understanding of American patriotism?” You say. “You’re British. Nothing but a dirty immigrant.” True, I was born and raised in England, and when it comes to soccer and the Olympics, I’ll cheer for the Brit over the Yank every time. But I’ve lived in the USA for the best part of a decade. I don’t live in a big city, but up in Maine, immersed in American small town society. I love an American girl, my friends are American, my workplace is American, and I feel as American as I do English. Let me put aside my inbred English diffidence and state I am in the blessed position of being both an insider and an outsider in American society. You need people like me to cast a gimlet eye over the United States. I’m like Alistair Cooke without the headstone.

So what kind of patriotism do I advocate that galvanizes the American people to use their immense wealth and power for the national (and ultimately international) good and at the same time is reconciled with my belief in progressive politics? It is essentially the model laid out by Tom Paine when he said, “Those who must expect to reap the benefits of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” In his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn George Orwell decried the tendency of the English left to sneer at a love of one’s country of birth or residence. He noted that true patriotism is a belief that one’s country is special to oneself because one feels a special affinity for the institutions and traditions that your forebears developed. No doubt scientists these days have isolated a genetic reason for this, the gene that makes a committed internationalist like myself puff out my chest and scream my lungs out when England play football. Maybe Mark Twain encapsulated it best when he said “My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders.”

So maybe I’m suggesting that true patriotism is as complex as any kind of love. Perhaps it’s a combination of recognizing the best that we have to offer while willingly accepting the strengths of other nations. It probably involves understanding our flaws and working to fix them, and proactively looking at ourselves through other’s eyes. Its comprehending both our core values and our ever-changing society and embracing both. Above all, it is reaching for the maturity of thought that thousands of years of prior human experience should enable us to reach.

One last quote, this time from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we know what to do with it.” We will know what to do with it if we stop listening to the man behind the curtain and start listening to our true selves.

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