Monday, April 14, 2008

The First Refuge Of Scoundrels

Roy Edroso had an interesting post last Thursday, in which he tried to find his patriotism. Hm, I know I left it here somewhere…

We are surrounded by conservatives who insist that they love America, and describe it as a horrible place where the unfortunate deserve only the back of the hand of power, which must be maintained by endless wars. After a bellyful of their patriotism I sometimes begin to doubt my own. Maybe they're right, I begin to think: maybe the ugly America they celebrate is the real America, and I have only deluded myself that it was something better.
Oh, here it is, under the couch:

The American people are often ridiculous and sometimes do horrible things, and I have turned my wrath on a broad array of our native fixers, crackers, dupes, dopes, and scumbags. But they are still my people. I too want more than I could possibly deserve, chafe at well-meant and even reasonable restrictions, and prefer a good time to a Great Awakening. And in the last ditch I'll take my stand with our credit-, pleasure-, and freedom-addicted folk against our would-be saviors.

I’ve seen liberals play this game numerous times over the years. Sometimes it was about reclaiming the flag – that one goes back way before September 11, 2001, to the days of the flag stickers, about the size of a 3x5 index card, that turned up in cars in the late 60s. Liberals and even a few leftists fretted: should they let the “hard-hats” have the flag to themselves, or should they show that they could wave the flag as well?

Well, sure, folks, knock yourselves out. Patriotism is more debilitating to reason than religious faith, so it took me a long time to work out my feelings about the flag. Then, back around the time of the first Gulf War I think, some airhead on a local BBS wrote something to the effect of, But don’t you love your only flag, the flag that gives you freedom? – and everything fell into place for me. The flag doesn’t give my freedom. It’s a piece of cloth. It is also a symbol, and like all symbols it’s a mess of conflicting meanings, some admirable, some despicable. But treating it as something holy is idolatry, and I’m still bemused by the number of hard-core Christians who are also flag-idolaters. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, nor make unto thee any graven image and worship it, remember? Anyway, I'm an atheist, and I don't worship anything.

On the other side, some friends wanted to burn a flag at a party I gave many years ago. I thought about it for a moment, then asked them to do it outside if they really insisted on doing it. They were excited like a bunch of much younger kids getting ready to torture a cat, and that alone (aside from the fire hazard: set something afire in my apartment?) made me uneasy. Far from being indifferent to it, they took the flag as seriously as any flag idolater, only they wanted to defile the holy thing. Homey don’t play that one either. I’m not sure my position puts me in the middle; more likely it puts me way out beyond all decent common-sense discourse, but since that’s where I’ve usually been, I can live with it.

Notice that Roy Edroso seems to be playing a similar, all-too-easy game. Either the right-wing blogosphere pundits or patriotism. The real patriotism, not their ersatz Hate-America-First patriotism. Either you’re for him or you’re against him. But again, I see other possibilities. I don’t want to see this country destroyed, not just because I live here and there are people I love who live here (though those are valid reasons), but because I don’t want to see any country destroyed. I didn’t want to see the Soviet Union destroyed in an orgy of blood-letting, nor did I want to see Vietnam bombed back into the Stone Age, nor did I want to see Iraq destroyed, nor do I want to see Iran destroyed, nor Israel nor Lebanon nor Afghanistan nor Colombia nor China nor North Korea nor Indonesia nor Cuba nor the frothing Batistas-in-exile in Miami – even though they all have the blood of countless innocents on their hands. (Disclaimer: The absence of any country in that list should not be construed as an endorsement of its destruction.)

This article from 2003, which I stumbled on while Googling for Chesterton’s witticism that “My country, right or wrong” is equivalent to “My mother, drunk or sober”, is a textbook case of either-or blindness. Note that it appeared in a left-liberal journal, Dissent (immortalized by Woody Allen’s old quip about Commentary merging with Dissent to become Dysentery); I could link to any number of articles by lefty-libs and progressives raving about leftists who said that 9/11 was all America’s fault, the chickens were coming home to roost, and the shoe’s on the other foot now, ha ha! – but this one will do nicely for now. (Michael Bérubé’s entry has a special place in my personal Hall of Shame, though, because I used to respect him.) For Joanne Barkan, to point out American crimes is to ignore totally the crimes of any other nation, to ignore all other geopolitical factors, to succumb to “the left’s negative nationalism.” But as usual with people of her ilk, it soon becomes clear that Barkan will not concede that America has ever done anything wrong, that any people anywhere in the world have reason to want to strike back at us, that no country in the world has any business defending itself against us, that it’s time to throw out reason and complexity and boil everything down to the question, “Do you want to see America conquered, or don’t you?”

No, I don’t -- not that America is in any danger of being conquered: the US has not fought a war of self-defense in my lifetime. But I don’t want to see any country conquered. People like Barkan get so furious at any mention of American malfeasance because they’ll gladly sic the dogs of war on any other country that behaved as the US has behaved, that killed a tenth as many people as the US has killed, that supported a tenth as many dictators as the US has supported, that harbors the kinds of terrorists the US harbors – so it is they who want to see the US attacked and humbled, if they had any consistency of principle. Those of us who can recognize the faults of our country, by contrast, simply want it to stop hurting people so wantonly.

I think it’s a safe bet, for example, that in 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr. called his own government the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, he wasn’t calling for other governments to invade the US. No, he said explicitly that he had come to realize that he couldn’t condemn the violence of others without first condemning and opposing the far greater violence being done in his name by his own government.

Whether King claimed to be a patriot, I don’t know; a search of the 700-page collection of his writings, A Testament of Hope (HarperOne, 1990), finds the word “patriot” only twice, and this quotation from page 327 is indicative: “It is a paradox that those Negroes who have given up on America are doing more to improve it than its professional patriots.” (The other passage, on 472, is a passing swipe at “sunshine patriots.”) It doesn’t appear that King set much store by the word.

In any case, I see no point in getting into a tug-of-war over words. (“Mine!” “No, mine!”) I’m an American, whether I or anyone likes it much: I was born here, I’m a citizen who pays taxes and votes, and so I have a say in what this country does. I don’t feel bound to support it unconditionally, but then no one does – those who attack others for lack of patriotism are ready, as Edroso said, to turn on their country whenever it suits them. I also don’t see how it can be meaningful to claim to “love” a country, any more than to “hate” it. (When I wrote earlier about the US as a collective, I was all too aware that it was problematic: what does it mean to attack “us” or to say that “the US” or “America” does something?) Whether I’m a “patriot” or not, whether my opinions are “patriotic” or not, is irrelevant, a distraction from questions of substance. My country, drunk or sober; when drunk, to be sobered up -- if that’s possible, which I increasingly doubt.

You know this old joke? “I defended you the other day – someone said that Promiscuous Reader ain’t fit to eat with the hogs, and I said, ‘He is so!’” Being a patriot is like being fit to eat with the hogs. Or not, if you prefer.