Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Cleaving To The Flag
I find it easy to root for local sports teams, even though most players have no more connection with my city than an inked and easily broken contract. I watch most games, go to a few, follow the stats, I like it when they win. But I could no more paint myself up and hoot and holler than I could walk naked down a parkway.
Similarly, there's something about the USA! USA! USA! sort of nationalism that I find off-putting. Hearing it chanted at Olympic events, for example, embarrasses me; I think it's rude to the other countries, and offensive. More so at the Sarah Palin-like rallies, where it takes on a sort of ominous tone, a menacing subtext. And yet, here I am feeling all proud of my country as I haven't for several years. The whole concept of nationalism/patriotism/love of country is one I find puzzling, and interesting. Does it mean what it says? Why do the manifestations tend to differ along party lines?
Essay question: why was a big deal made of Obama's flag pinnotness when McCain never wore one? Why did he begin wearing one, when McCain never did? Why is symbolism so easily substituted for action? Why do so many equate criticism of our country's actions with lack of patriotism? And what the hell is patriotism?
I find the word to be a cudgel, wielded mostly from the right, aimed to discredit those with whom one disagrees. It's a surly shorthand for "My country right or wrong, and if you don't buy what I'm selling, you must hate America." Or something like that. Because patriotism has, as I see it, no reliable definition. Love of country. Love of ice cream. In what way do they differ? I guess I wouldn't fight and die for ice cream (although triple chocolate fudge brownie is pretty damn good); if clearly threatened, I would for country: I actually came close (the dying part) a couple of times in Vietnam. But I think it'a less about the abstraction of "country" than family, friends, self-preservation; or isn't that what "country" is all about?
I pay my taxes; I've voted for every school bond and levy, every transportation tax increase, and I don't particularly enjoy it. I've never gotten into tax shelters (a couple of my friends did, once, good liberals, they. Nailed for fines and interest, they had to refinance their homes to pay for it, and I had no sympathy.)
While my wife supported me and the rest of the troops by working for the McGovern anti-war campaign, I served in a war with which I disagreed (not that I had a lot of choice, but many of my friends made successful moves to avoid it; and when I got orders to Vietnam I figured if I somehow wheedled out -- I was given suggestions -- someone else would have to go in my place.) I worked eighty-plus hour weeks most of my career, donated to charities; gave more than I took from life, I think. When I traveled in the Soviet Union as a language student in college, during the height of the Cold War and of the civil rights struggles at home, I defended my country strenuously in several street-corner arguments. I've never been arrested, I've gotten one speeding ticket in forty-eight years of driving, if I get too much change from a cashier, I give it back. In every election since I was of age, I voted: more often than not for losing candidates. I admire, and at some level take pride in (even though it wasn't me), the ways in which the US has shown the world the way in so many areas. Do I "love" my country? I don't think I understand the term. Some people say they love their cars.
I'm very glad I live where I do.
Am I a patriot? Or, to put it another way, isn't the above list enough to claim patriotism, even though it's not a word I've ever used about myself? Am I not as much a patriot as Pat Buchanan? When I criticize the travesty that was the Bush presidency, does it negate the claim?
In the denouement of the election, having heard "patriotism" tossed around in ways that made me sick, I hereby vote to banish it from the lexicon. To refer to someone as a patriot is to imply some counterpart is not. It's an imaginary word, a freighted word but one of no substance, stripped of whatever meaning it might once have had. Must you own a musket, do you have to agree with invading Iraq to be a patriot?
What I am is a citizen; one who believes in the Constitution and the rights it implies, including criticizing the government and demanding better of it; one that follows the law and who has no sense of entitlement beyond that of everyone else. And yes, given the constant pressure on the Constitution, I support the ACLU. From where I sit it's less clear that the current government shares my beliefs: if I knew how to use the word "patriot," I'm not sure I could apply it to George Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, because they clearly tried to subvert and ignore the Constitution, and have harmed our country. Nor is it easy to use the word in connection with the campaign run by John McCain and Sarah Palin, for they deliberately tried to tear the country asunder.
Which means we need to redefine the word, or dump it. From political campaigns, at the very least.
[Amusing addendum: during the current and very brief salmon season, Native American gill-netters are plying the waters in the bay over which we look. Reaching their fill, they off-load their catch to a waiting processing boat parked right in front of our house. Its name, I just noted, which can't be discerned from the photo so take my word, is "American Patriot."]