Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Imagine There's No Countries

A regular reader of this blog wrote in e-mail that yesterday's post and the work of another blogger had "demolished any tiny shred of patriotism and hero worship left."  I think his remark was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but hey, I'm always happy to be of service.

The media fuss over a Malian (undocumented) immigrant who climbed a Paris apartment building to rescue a four-year-old child reminds me just how skeptical I am about "heroes."  I think that Mamoudou Gassama probably qualifies as a hero if anyone does, but of course you can't stop there: he's a superhero and the media have dubbed him Spiderman (though Spiderman wouldn't have climbed, he'd have swung up on his web in one go).  French President Macron promised Gassama that he will be fast-tracked for naturalized citizenship, so of course the media are reporting that Gassama is already "made a citizen."  And so on.

One trouble I see with the concept of the Hero is that it reduces a person to a geometrical point, and almost no one will bear the kind of scrutiny a point receives.  First, though I hope I'll be proven wrong, I predict that Gassama will turn out to be less than a perfect role model in some way (if being black and a Muslim weren't enough); maybe he'll turn out to have a criminal record in Mali, maybe there'll be drugs or domestic abuse or something of the kind, and the media and the French government will turn on him as quickly and easily as they fawn on him now.  Second, maybe he'll turn out to be a total Boy Scout, but his squeaky clean perfection will be used as a club to beat every other undocumented immigrant in France and elsewhere because they aren't superheroes, just ordinary schmoes looking for a better life away from poverty or violence.  Heroes are like saints: the concept is constructed to foster unrealistic expectations of the hero/saint, who can then be trashed gleefully when he or she turns out to be human after all, and serves to deprecate real human beings.  The best hero or saint, of course, is a dead one, a plaster idol who can be merchandised, a brand beyond criticism or question.

I've often been asked angrily by hero-worshipers who've idols I've slighted if I have any heroes, or even anyone I admire.  There's a big difference between having a hero and admiring someone.  As I've written before, there are many people I admire; that doesn't mean I'm unaware of their flawed humanity, or that I care.  Mamoudou Gassama's heroism in climbing a building to save a child would not be diminished if he turned out to be very seriously flawed; but it also would not excuse those flaws.  The hero-worshiper stumbles on this point.  Any flaws must be denied, and if they can't be denied they must be minimized, explained away, and forgotten as soon as possible.  I don't worship anyone or anything, though I confess that when I was younger I could be pushed into a defensive posture about people I admired; I think I've learned better over the years.

So, for a relatively easy example, I admire Bree Newsome, who climbed a South Carolina statehouse flagpole to take down a Confederate flag that was flying on it.  That took some courage.  But she's a religious nut, and has said numerous things that I disagree with.  I feel no big dissonance about this, partly because I've never met her and probably never will.  But if I did, the admiration I feel for her courageous act in Charlotte wouldn't deter me from disagreeing if she said something I thought needed to be disagreed with.  It's not an either/or thing, and it speaks badly for those who think it is.

As for patriotism, I've had many entertaining and instructive exchanges about it over the years.  One of my go-to catchphrases is that patriotism is the first refuge of scoundrels.  The more I argue with liberals who want to preserve or reclaim the term, the more I'm sure it's an empty word and has no positive uses.  My progressive Diversity Manager Friend, for example, has denounced the NFL's decision to punish athletes who take a knee as protest before football games as unpatriotic, the real un-patriotism.  He has declared that patriotism isn't coercive, doesn't involve forcing people to sing the anthem or genuflect to the flag, so the NFL bosses are the ones who are really unpatriotic.  One could play the No True Patriot game, I suppose, which is the only way his claims make any kind of sense.  It seems to me that, in standard culture-of-therapy fashion, he's trying to reduce patriotism to an individual trait, the way that the born-gay claim isolates homosexuality as a geometrical point in the psyche of the homosexual, or bigotry as hatred harbored in the hater's heart.

But all these are social, cultural phenomena first, and individual traits as a distant second.  Patriotism too is the product of a system, situated in an imagined community called the nation.  Further, my friend's own actions show that while a True Patriot sitting alone may not be coercive, the moment he comes into conflict with others, the demand for patriotism and the accusation of un-patriotism are meant to reward and punish others.  My friend doesn't have the political or economic power to punish the NFL directly, but he hopes to shame them, and to encourage others to shame and coerce them into changing their policy.  Fine with me; I think that coercion is not itself a bad thing, that sometimes we must coerce people to stop their harmful behavior.  But we shouldn't deceive ourselves about what we're doing when we do so.  

Further, he wants to coerce the NFL in the name of America, in the name of True Patriotism, and there I part company with him.  The key point is that he undermines his own assertions about the non-coercive nature of patriotism, a word whose history is written in blood and terror.  I suppose that given time and much care, the word could be detached from its history and made wholly positive, though I doubt it, but that history must never be forgotten, and that is what I think my friend (and the many like him) is trying to do.

Am I saying, then, that no one should love America or any other country?  Far from it; I'm very tolerant of people's fetishes and kinks, as long as no one gets hurt.  Maybe I can draw a useful distinction and say that love is one thing, infatuation another.  But call it what you will, when you choose not to see the flaws in your beloved, when you become indignant that others don't share your tunnel vision, then you've crossed the line and are perpetuating the cycle of abuse.  And all too often, love of one's own country slides over into justifying the subordination of other countries.

If I don't like it here, then why don't I leave?  Someone is sure to ask that.  But I do like it here.  I know that compared even to many other Americans, I'm very well off.  I don't see why that should stop me from criticizing my country, and it is mine no less than anyone else's.  As Corey Robin wrote and I agreed a few days ago, we must share this country with each other.  But that necessity doesn't mean that I shouldn't object when my country harms the citizens of other countries, or some American citizens harm other American citizens.  The whole function of patriotism, I contend, is to distract us from making our country better.