Sunday, February 26, 2006

On Patriotism
Friday February 24th 2006, 1:14 am

Everything is debatable, but debate is ultimately incapable of settling anything; any belief, no matter how qualified it is or how well supported by evidence, is finally a leap of faith, or more precisely an exercise of the will. Like any form of real love, patriotism, the belief that one’s country is deserving of one’s loyalty sacrifices, cannot be a mere infatuation, which is the result of seduction or enchantment; it must take account not only of the charms and the virtues of a country, but of its faults and its sins as well. And the greater the power of the country under consideration, and the stronger the identification of the country’s mythology of itself with a certain set of political values, the more stirring will be its accomplishments and the more dismaying its failures.

There are many varieties of patriotism, and the phenomenon itself is strange. Even a small country–even a small city–is an imagined community, and the bonds between its citizens are not always as strong as the bonds between its citizens and certain foreigners. In a continental country comprising deserts and glaciers, farmlands and harbors, mountains and canyons, the diversity of landscapes is apt to be matched only by the diversity of the population; and such a diverse country is difficult to comprehend even if seen in its totality, which few ever do. (It is a source of constant amazement to me that in Illinois and Kentucky, two neighboring states that almost merge into the same community with the same beliefs and customs along the Ohio River, the commemoration of the Civil War is so different; Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, and much of downtown Springfield is a shrine to our country’s greatest leader, but Kentucky, which didn’t even secede, officially honors Jefferson Davis with a state park, not to mention Confederate flags on pickup trucks.)

In a small country, patriotism is apt to be defined in terms of certain landmarks, which may be unremarkable when compared to other landforms around the world but which, when invested with song and poetry and myth, become Everests of the imagination; in an old country with a famous civilization, the temptation to invest the ancients with even more significance than they fairly one is ever-present (as is the blind, perverse, and perennial rebellion against the dead hand of tradition). A nation-state which was born out of the twin imperatives of a centralizing state and a homogenizing population, the two trends reinforcing and catalyzing one another, will be subjected to a mixture of the small country’s emphasis on the particularistic (although it will be not landmarks, but artists, generals, and statesmen who will be honored for otherwise unremarkable deeds) and the ancient country’s obeisance to a largely imagined past (although its storytellers will emphasize not the outstanding deeds of a few great men but the age-old and wholly invented unity of the nation and its folkways). Each of these types of countries will nurture a different type of patriotism.

There are two additional types of countries, or rather one which breeds two subspecies. These are the countries that are undeniably recent, and being new lack not only an ancient civilization to revere but an ethnicity to share. Such novel creatures are, in fact, largely the result of Western colonialism and imperialism; although nationalism is not only an artifact of the successive sins of Europe, the specific borders and characteristics of most countries that fall into this category are, in fact, a result of the actions of the crowned heads, and later the enfranchised peoples, of the great nations of Europe. I have in mind here the historical earthquake which shook the Americas, at once redrawing the territories of existing polities for administrative convenience, causing historical amnesia by denuding the landscape of its narrative significance, and decapitating and emaciating the indigenous cultures while imposing a wholly alien tradition on two continents. What was left in many places was only a sense of ethnic identity reinforced by strictly enforced class and racial boundaries, a process that is still ongoing.

Yet in other postcolonial countries, such as the United States, or countries marked by colonial threats but never dominated by them, such as Japan, the effect has been subtler because historical continuity was never snapped. The United States, of course, has become as much a mythological country as an actual one; its history is invested with a significance rather unlike that of a European country (save perhaps France since the Revolution). If America is embarked on an historical experiment in democratic self-governance, and one which seeks not only to prove that a republic can survive but that it can be virtuous, then every epoch is an interim report on that experiment, every setback a blow to the hypothesis, every advance an indication that the theory is plausible after all. Few other countries are so endowed with an ideological significance; tellingly, the most important other country to so publicly and deeply stake its legitimacy and its identity on an ideological proposition survived not even until its seventy-fifth anniversary, despite its still-impressive power. And even today, there are many throughout the former Soviet Union (although these principally Russians) who believe in the ideology that motivated that short-lived colossus, so attractive–to them, anyway–was the idea of Communism, so strong their will-to-believe.

The United States, of course, is in some respects a normal country. Our rivers, mountains, and plains are celebrated even when they are somewhat dull; the Founding Fathers are venerated almost to the point of idolatry, the misunderstandings and worship of their every deed a suffocating force for a whole class of Americans; and there yet remain many who believe that an “American” is an ethnic, not merely a cultural and a political, marker (viz., that an “American” is, essentially, a white Protestant). It should be obvious that certain of these traits have been accepted by the public to varying degrees over the years; the ethnic identitification, in particular, has been waning for at least the better part of a half-century. But it should be equally clear that what I say next must be understood in the context of these competing roots of American patriotism–that many who share the somewhat esoteric ideas I am about to lay out may also love simply the “normal” attributes of America, in a way that would be familiar to an English or a German patriot.

If there is an idealized America–not merely a “purer” version of the United States that exists only in our imaginations like a Norman Rockwell painting, but a concept of the United States in a purely ideational sense–than patriotism for an American must mean loyalty to this idea above all. The leftist slogan “Dissent is Patriotic” expresses one of the implications of this idea, because in certain situations dissent from the policies of an American government will deviate from one’s ideal America; the obverse is that often it is loyalty which is patriotic, an understanding that the bold scribblers of the left (or the right when it is in opposition) are unlikely to champion when it is inexpedient.

Yet because this country is idealized, feelings for this America are more difficult to share than a patriotism based on a common affection for, say, the Avoca Valley or a common respect for the teachings of Confucius. Without our constant engagement in a public sphere, my idealized America and yours will forever remain unreconciled, and we will indeed be likely to conclude that the other really, deep down, hates the country we both profess to love. As the quotation in the post below demonstrates, or as Orwell describes in 1984, there is another way to create such a shared concept of a country, but such coercion, violent or simply propagandistic, is antithetical to any version of the United States I choose to admire.

But having divided the United States in the manner of an ancient philosopher into its ethereal and its corporeal substances, what is the fate of the would-be patriot who loves only one of the substances? Such a man must be sentenced to walk his native land as an expatriate, an exile abroad at home, a sentence from which there is no hope of reprieve. This is a situation which cannot affect someone who is disenchanted with a country of the other types described earlier; he will have the option of simply leaving his country or choosing to disdain it. The latter will be unpleasant but it is surely less so than the predicament of our frustrated American patriot. The frustrated American may take to activism, which is arduous and even more frustrating, but which is an option that will not even occur to, for example, a Greek who can’t stand Platonic philosophy; you can’t argue against the past any more than you can argue against the landscape.

To some degree, all Americans are tormented by such discrepancies between the country they make devotions to and the country they physically inhabit. It is this peculiar trait, one characteristic of a permanent revolution that is so thoroughgoing that even a Mao would be in awe of it, that explains the moral urgency of American politics, the vigor of public debate, and the importance of what would in other countries be purely procedural questions (the veneration of the Constitution, for example, is incomprehensible even to citizens of other democracies). This contest of wills is, however, not a drawback of American politics; it is the very essence of it, and that trait I find most admirable.


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