"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fourth of July

I am not at all patriotic.  The sentiment has always done more harm than good. Henry V rallied his troops before the battle of Agincourt with calls to patriotism, the greatness of England, and the absolute rights of the English to the French throne.  In his famous ‘band of brothers’ speech before the final battle, he not only appealed to nationalism and country, but said that fighting together in this most righteous of causes would unite both nobles and common men.  It was not only duty and honor to which Henry appealed, but the communion of English souls.

Later in Shakespeare’s plays Henry in disguise discusses his decision to fight the French with some of his troops, common soldiers commandeered into service.  He looked for approbation from them on the rightness of his cause – one which was torturously and tenuously justified through long academic history.  He hated the fact that his grandfather, Henry IV, might have been a usurper, and now he might also be an illegitimate pretender to the throne of France; and so when the common soldiers suggested that he was committing thousands of Englishmen to a probable death because of his rarified, barely justifiable, and esoteric noble goals, Henry was shocked.  Weren’t they part of his valorous band of brothers, together in goal and spirit?

Despite his reflection on the questionable nature of his cause and on the moral question of sending thousands to their death for such an improbable claim, he went right ahead and executed his plans.  He took Agincourt, secured French lands and power, and went on to be a great English hero.

The point is, he relied on patriotism – the ideal of fighting for the glory of country and the rightness of its cause – to consolidate the support of his troops; and the call to action in the service of one’s country was no more than a silver-tongued, impassioned exhortation to take the first bullet.

Patriotism was the call to arms in the Civil War, although North and South rallied their troops for different causes.  They both fought to preserve their way of life, whether the plantation- and slavery-based, aristocratic system of the South; or the free labor, abolitionist economy of the North.  In fact, the soldiers in both armies knew or cared little about the patriotic sentiments expressed by their commanders.  They were sent to the slaughter under a banner of regionalism, the causes and principles of which they only vaguely understood.

All wars coalesced public opinion and strengthened the morale of fighting men through patriotism, and the honor and duty to country; and in all wars the principles enunciated by political leaders meant little to the common man.  It was only through emotional appeals to patriotism that these leaders were able to pursue their ends.  \

How else would doughboys have poured over the trenches in World War I into a withering hail of bullets, dying at a rate almost matching that of the most deathly of conflicts, the Civil War?  Who understood the real reasons for the European conflict, Archduke Ferdinand, and petty border differences between the descendants of ancient kings?  Very few; but all understood the meaning of the tocsin call to arms.

Religious patriotism sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths in the Crusades.  All had to fight for Christianity against the infidel and to rid Europe of the scourge of Islam.  The Mexican-American War was not fought defensively or over issues of survival but Westward expansion, and many criticized President Polk for his aggressive attempts to take over Mexican lands in his march to the Pacific.  The death toll and cost of the war were considerable; and yet the war was fought to support American interests.  A call to patriotism in this questionable cause was heard throughout the land. President McKinley prosecuted the short Spanish-American War because of similar ‘national interests’, i.e. fighting to eliminate Spanish influence in the Pacific.  Again, a questionable war, with many dead and more wounded.

The War of 1812 had more justification, and despite the fact that it was fought over a simple issue – the impressing of American seamen – it really was about ridding the United States once and for all from English influence.  Once again, it was a war about territory, influence, and power, and patriotism was the now wearying call to arms.

Patriotism is even more corrosive in peacetime, for it appeals to a primitive, emotional center with even less justification than going to war.  In this election year, it is patriotic, say the Republicans, for Americans to stand up for liberty and individual rights.  It is not enough for citizens to reflect on the principles, policies, and programs of the Right; they must vote patriotically, casting a ballot for higher principles.  Such appeals to patriotism plays on the ignorance of many voters, or their inability to sort through the complexity of today’s socio-economic and political world, and is manipulative and exploitive.

I attended a Fourth of July parade in a small town in western Colorado today.  The American Legion led the parade, followed by mothballed Abrams tanks, Humvees, and armored personnel carriers.  Veterans followed in line, bedecked with medals and all carrying flags.  All quasi-military institutions were represented – the police, fire, emergency rescue squads; the forces of order and representing a solidarity of civic feeling. It was small, and pale in comparison to the Independence Day parades I have seen in earlier years in the United States; and nothing compared to the overwhelmingly militaristic parades of Latin America or the former Soviet Union.  The show of strength and solidarity was impressive.  It was a spectacle, a show of disciplined force and national unity.  It was an emotional appeal to nation and country. 

These parades are diminished in scope and feeling somehow.  Perhaps because we have long had a volunteer army, foreign wars are for other people, not for us or our sons and daughters.  Younger generations have little understanding what previous foreign wars were all about and how they relate to our independence or to the principles of our founding fathers.

Patriotism was not an issue at the time of the birth of the nation.  We all fought against the British.  We all suffered because of the harsh, rigid, and unfair administration of our occupiers.  There was no clarion call to arms for abstract reasons of patriotism, but to free our country from the yoke of British rule.  The revolt was real, immediate, and understandable.  Today, that reality has been distorted.  Freedom, justice, the pursuit of liberty and happiness, fairness, equality – all 18th Century principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – have been coopted and misused.  Little thought is given to what they really meant or mean.  The words alone are enough when couched in the call to patriotic duty.  The words to Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton were not empty but vital:

The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy the gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people; then shall we both deserve and enjoy it.  While, on the other hand, if we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject slaves (Samuel Adams).

Freedom was not just a vague concept, a given right, part of an American’s legacy.  It was a responsibility, and there was always the danger of falling from freedom to ‘abject slavery’.  Adams and others, particularly Jefferson who was influenced by John Locke, believed that freedom and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ had little to do with personal satisfaction or venal interests.  They were the foundation for civic liberty and justice to be nurtured and cared for.

This nurture and care was everyone’s responsibility.  If freedom, justice, and fairness were to be guaranteed for all Americans, then each American had a duty to promote them, secure them, and protect them:

I know of no safe depositor of the ultimate powers of a society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.  This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power (Thomas Jefferson).

By inference, the responsibility of assuring an honorable and just nation is the role of both leaders and citizens; and that if the body politic weakens, both must act to strengthen it through reason and reasonable arguments.  What happens today is far removed from Jefferson’s sentiments.  Not only is civic education lacking, but politicians use that ignorance to their own ends, thus abrogating the most sacred trust between the elected and the governed.

I am not patriotic, nor can I say that I love my country; for these sentiments have been too corrupted and used for venal ends.  I am not proud of my country, because it has acted like all others.  Our political life now is no different from that depicted in Shakespeare’s Histories, where the Grand Mechanism (Jan Kott) of accession, succession, usurpation, self-defense, expansion, and the relentless quest for power and dominance governs all.  There is no ‘American exceptionalism’.  We are just acting out the political, economic, and historical imperatives which got us to where we are. 

However, I do admire America for its energy, incredible vigor and political activism, its entrepreneurial spirit, positive attitude, risk-taking, and absolute confidence to create and recreate.  When I read Southern history, I am always amazed at the strength and purpose of South Carolina planters who, in search for wealth and a better life, left their progressively unproductive cropland and moved through the most difficult wilderness imaginable to set up a new life in Mississippi. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is perhaps the best account of the Nietzschean will of Thomas Sutpen and his quintessentially American desire to succeed, to prosper, and to rise in status. 

Here in Colorado, I am impressed by the communal vitality of the town, fighting against dominant interests which threaten their lives and well-being.  In the West, it was the Federal Government which came first, and still rules the land.  The Bureau of Land Management is the force to be reckoned with, not the more representative city, county, or state government.  The citizens have to negotiate archaic rules of water, grazing, and land rights, and fend off what they see as the profiteering of outsiders.  Again, the spirit of defiance, determination, and community are typically American.

I admire the diversity of America – not the hackneyed ‘diversity’ of ethnic and racial difference, but the the regional uniqueness of the country.  I have spent a lot of time in small town Mississippi, and while it shares some of the same characteristics of this small town in Colorado, it is fundamentally different.  Its history, demographics, climate, geography all make it special, but American.

I spent over 40 years working and travelling outside the United States, and two years ago I returned to the United States.  It was not a simple return, packing up the boxes and unpacking them in a more familiar environment, enjoying the comforts of home; it was a complex one.  I have been making forays into the United States, studying its history, its regionalism, its political diversity and ferocity.  I have far more questions than I do answers about why we are the way we are and why Mississippi is so different from Colorado; but my search leads me not only to the cotton fields, mesas, and canyons, but back to the Constitution and the principles of the Founding Fathers.  I am not proud of the way those principles have been so deformed and misused; or how the political process has become so devoid of historical reference; and I am unsure of where the country will go from here.  I assume that it will emerge as a reinvented version of its familiar self – chastened, no longer exceptional, more frail and willing to listen to others – but still American to the core.

It is an exciting journey I have been on for the past two years, and I cannot wait to continue.

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