Patriots, Globophiles, and Fools

by A. Jay Adler on April 28, 2010
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So the other day I wrote a bit about the conformist emotions and manipulations often found in conservative-style patriotism. It isn’t enough to organize against government policies considered objectionable – the organization need be one of tea party patriots. Those against whom conservatives organize cannot simply be mistaken or wrongheaded – they must by styled treasonous or un-American. Yes, it is true that liberals will at times reach for those labels, but most of the time that is the reactive tendency I spoke of in that post, to seek to weaken, by adopting, the gestures of the other side. Historically, the making of the patriotic argument via the “un-American” and “treasonous” ad hominem is quintessential conservative politics.

As I suggested the other day, too, the dubious morality mixes with cheesy esthetics. Gretchen Carlson of Fox & Friends oozes it.

Observing that one fellow, Emil Di Motta, was wearing a flag motif tie, Gretch, ever a fan of the well dressed patriot, gushed that “I see the patriotism even goes to the ties.” You could feel the heat when she seductively smiled and said “I like that.”

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says of kitsch that it

causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”

Carlson’s “I like that” is the second tear. It is the self-congratulation that, when applied to patriotism – by Palin, Beck, and so many conservative leaders – makes patriotism, like the braggart hero, kitsch.

Much liberal discomfort with patriotic display – and awkwardness, in attempting to look away, without being perceived as having turned away – arises in response to patriotic kitsch.

But it isn’t only liberals who are reactive. So, too, are conservatives. To what?

One of the rankest and stupidest pieces of writing produced this winter, amid much competition – and deserving, before its slide into general obscurity, of further ignominy – was Katha Pollit’s consideration of patriotism in Dissent’s winter issue symposium on Intellectuals and Their America. The appellation intellectual was loosely applied, as you can see, and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel (this The Nation of The Nation Institute, underwriter of the anti-Semitic Mondoweiss blog) modestly declined it in her own entry – a modesty that her colleague Pollit, like other virtues, lacks.

Pollit made an earlier inglorious foray into patriotic considerations in the days after 9/11, in the pages of The Nation, the very kind of response, back then, that led Dissent editor Michael Waltzer to pen an essay titled Can There Be a Decent Left, offering up a term Pollit, sensitive on the issue, cites resentfully in 2010. What did Pollit write about after 9/11? She reported on her refusal to let her daughter hang an American flag from their living room window as a sign of American solidarity in the days following the attack. Pollit explained her adamancy to her daughter by asserting, “The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.”

Recall that Pollit, so we are told, is an intellectual (and a poet too, I would remind) when considering her reduction of the American flag, as a symbol, to so limited and negative a signified, in an act of willful ignorance and distortion. Pray she does not decline in intellect.

The American flag, like almost any national flag, first signifies the ideals and formative mythos of the culture adopting it. That the national ideal has inevitably faced degrading confrontations in reality with the limitations of human beings to live up to it has been true for every nation. Exceptions are those flags, such as the Nazi or Confederate flags, that represented debased ideas in their origin. Certainly, history adds to the symbolic weight of any flag, and a penumbra of symbolic meanings, varyingly public and private, ensue. But Pollit’s attempt to deny the American flag any other associations but her own scornful ones – including the original and, for many, the sustaining ideal – is as intellectually flawed and morally dishonest, in the reverse, as attempts by recalcitrant or revivalist Southern boobs to argue that the Stars and Bars did not, in part, originally, and thus unavoidably, stand for white supremacy and slavery. For the flag of the Confederacy, the weight of its historically degraded signification is too great for it to be persuasively used to mean anything else. Claim that the U.S. flag stands for “jingoism and vengeance and war” and through the weight of a similar degradation, one denies that flag, too, any other sustainable meaning.

Pollit ended her piece with the apparent largeness of sensibility to pronounce, “The globe, not the flag, is the symbol that’s wanted now.” It is the embedded either/or in the statement that is the flaw in this thought, but credit Pollit her hobgoblin, she is grinding the same ax nine years later, no less obtuse, no more attuned to human nature than before.

This time around, though, she sees she went too far in 2001.

My Nation column after 9/11 about not flying the flag was widely attacked as anti-American, cold-hearted, foolish, and ill-advised.

I’m sure I could have written more carefully and sensitively. The tone of that column was unnecessarily prickly, and I went too far when I identified the flag with racism and jingoism, because of course it has many meanings, including anti-racism and rejection of ignorant chauvinism. But my central point was, I believe, a good one: we need to think in a larger framework than our own country and be wary of appeals to patriotism in a crisis, because when the flags come out, people tend to turn off their brains, and the next thing you know, we’re at war. In fact, that is what happened. That is what is still happening.

In the empty chamber of Pollit-thought, even when she tries to reenter the atmosphere she is sucked back into a vacuum. The war to which she refers is not just Iraq, but Afghanistan, the latter of which, too she opposed from the start. It never occurs to her, though, that “appeals to patriotism in a crisis” – or the natural upswell of patriotism, without appeal – might follow the attack on Pearl Harbor or the secession of slave states or a natural disaster, and that patriotism is one variation on the natural affinities that arise among people in various forms of proximity to one another.

Instead, Pollit wonders

What if we took seriously the idea of one world?

Well, what if we did? Many of us do.

Still, when I took up bicycle riding along the coastal path here in Los Angeles (soon after 9/11, as the facts will have it, as my own form of therapy), I soon discovered that an occasional cyclist riding in the opposite direction would raise a hand in passing as a gesture of – what? Hello? Well, yes, I suppose, most immediately. But no jogger ever lifts his hand, or any roller blader, or the constitutional walkers. Only other cyclists. Of course, I respond. We have nothing against those fitness devotees of other stripes, but only we know the swift pleasure of the pedal and the wheel, and we signal that bond with a gesture. During our year on the road in 2009, all over America, I discovered the same to be true among motorcyclists – just a raise of the palm above the left handle bar, in passing the other way, in recognition of our moto-fraternity.

It is so small, but the impulse to seek close fields of association and affective concern is as natural to us as the need to feel at all. That this impulse can be corrupted – by warring motorcycle gangs or territorial surfers, chauvinists and demagogues – signals only our human freedom to ennoble or debase all that we experience and enact.

A motivating concern should be with how to extend our moral interest beyond the naturally narrow range of our affective associations. This is the concern – the one that motivates everyone who cares about broadening human relations beyond nationalism, cultural conflict, and cutthroat economic competition. However, an expansion of our emotional and moral range need not be an antithetical rejection of the foundations of feeling. Our most fundamental insights into our psychological and spiritual natures should make it very nearly self-evident, as I wrote in Principia Liberalis, that one must love one’s neighbor before one can love the world. Accordingly, a popular slogan within the activist left for many years has urged the committed to “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Sage and practical advice that draws on a keen perception: it is easier to act and succeed locally, not just because of the scales of economy and political reach, but because of the natural, urgent range of our affective interests. If this is something to be ashamed of, it is a shame that Americans can share with the rest of the world, because it was not just the U.S. that failed to intervene in Rwanda, or Sudan, or Congo.

The alternative on the left to caring first for those around you – to seeking one neighborhood and one nation first – has too often resulted in a coldly abstracted compassion: a wire-rimmed and bespectacled journey from the Finland Station or a professorial passage from the classroom to the equatorial mountains in the belief that what love requires to save its object is the refining fire of terror. In this way it becomes possible for some on the left to quickly don their glasses and reason in the jungle, as did some like Pollit (absent the most fundamental neighborly solidarity) that while the loss of life might be awful and regrettable, there is an idea to be served, and not one’s neighbor – call it, maybe, now, one world.

In the end, then, the angle of Pollit’s obtuseness is always reliably right in its wrongness, as she concludes

I realize that criticizing patriotism generally doesn’t go over very well, let alone telling people they’re not so great and even a bit greedy. But what has all our flag-waving done for us in the end?

In these comments Pollit actually finds some solidarity, with Slavoj Zizek, who wrote, in the days after 9/11, in the loathsome “Welcome to the Desert of the Real

we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life[.]

The blaring irony, of course, is that it is the likes of the ideologically refined Zizek and Pollit who cannot emotionally fathom anymore the basic, which is not to say base, human emotions that might commit a life in a deeply felt wave of a flag and the good some believe the flag represents. For in Pollit’s wonder what flag-waving has done for us, she presumably has no care what result was delivered by the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or the Second World War, or might come in the contest between Islamic fundamentalism and the best of the West. She has no memory of the many hundreds of thousands who died over more than two centuries that she might live, in such safety, to be so stupid.

Patriotism – an idea so compelling that the dogs of war, come from every direction, are drawn, each in their different way, to piss on it.

AJA


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