Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Glorious Fourth: Some thoughts on Patriotism, Jingoism, Chauvinism, and genuine love of country.

This Fourth of July, 2008, the 232nd anniversary of American independence, the news came that former North Carolina Senator, and life-long racist, neo-fascist, homophobe and vile scum, Jesse Helms, had died. Unfortunately for our nation he died 86 years too late. A statement from Dubya’s White House characterized the odious Mr. Helms as a “true patriot”. It’s a good thing that we’ve long since ceased to credit any statement from this White House gang else that characterization of Helms would confirm of Ambrose Bierce’s modification of Dr. Johnson’s definition of patriotism: that it is the first refuge of a scoundrel. Jesse Helms succeeded in a way that far too many before him had in embodying the worst characteristics of America. He was the poster boy for jingoism, bigotry and hate-mongering. The nation is better for his passing and would have been better still had he never lived. Yet calling him a “true patriot” calls up the question of what “true” patriotism might be.

Vladimir Nabokov said that we know that we’re in the presence of the sublime when the little hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. At some point on each July 4th those hairs stand up for me. I may be when I hear the Declaration of Independence read, occasionally by myself, or when someone plays Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful. They might stand up in the presence of the sublime manifest in a number of ways, including the utterly trite snap of a flag on the summer breeze. I respond that way when the Statue of Liberty fills the screen and someone reads Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus or Francis Bellamy’s unadulterated Pledge of Allegiance.

Yes. I admit it. I love my country. I am not one of those doomed to be “unwept, unhonor’d and unsung” of whom Sir Walter Scott wrote,

“Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
From wandering on a foreign strand?”

Yet I am loathe to call myself a patriot not least because it might associate me with the likes of Helms, Dubya, Cheney, Feith or some similar charlatan. There is nothing even casually patriotic about that gang of criminals. But what is it to be patriotic? Why is this crop of neo-fascists not patriotic while I think that I am?

Flags and flag pins, patriotic songs and gestures like rote repetition of the Pledge of Allegiance are simply trappings. They are not the nation any more than are my cats. Burning a flag may have symbolic meaning but it has nothing whatever to do with respect for the principles of this nation. Those things are gewgaws. They may be gewgaws that we treasure but they are not the core of the nation despite their being mistaken for such by far too many people.

What is the core of our nation is its Constitution as amended and, to a lesser extent, the statement of principle in our Declaration of Independence. Our public officials from the president, congress and the Supreme Court on down to the lowliest bureaucrat swear to protect and defend our Constitution, not the flag, the national anthem, or any particular item. It is the Constitution that is at the core of America and why we are a nation of laws not men. Yet few citizens and even fewer of those who wear their patriotism on their sleeves read the Constitution or understand the history and the debate that led to its adoption. I dare say that perhaps one in 50 of us have even heard of the Articles of Confederation that preceded the Constitution’s adoption. The so-called Libertarian Movement thrives on the ignorance of the Articles of Confederation because we tried their prescription for governance from 1777 through 1787 and it didn’t work. Out of that failure came our Constitution.

The ultra-rightists who currently run the Executive Branch, have a stranglehold on the Legislative Branch and have largely taken over the Judicial Branch are not patriotic because they violate our Constitution on a regular basis. The right wing that now has usurped the Republican Party may talk a good game, wrap themselves in the flag and the gewgaws of patriotism but their actions demonstrate that their entire program is one of undermining the Constitution by sewing fear and keeping the populace fragmented and distracted by meaningless issues like opposition to same-sex marriage or who does or does not wear a flag pin.

There is not a person serving since January 20, 2001 in the White House staff or above the Deputy Assistant level in the cabinet departments who is not just unpatriotic but a traitor to the Constitution.

So, I do consider myself a patriot. I’ve seen a great deal of this nation. I come of a family that came to New England on the Mayflower in 1620 and that had men in all this nations wars through World War II. Those hairs on the back of my neck stand in the presence of many of the symbols of my nation and in the significant places like the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials or on the hallowed ground of Gettysburg. Yet I am nothing so much as furious at those who trade in a shallow, triumphalist patriotism while trampling on the Constitution.