November 15, 2007
On the morning of Monday, June 28, 2004, Carol Jean Nicholson fell out of love. A professor of philosophy at Rider University, best known as Alma Mater to Woody Allen’s underage beloved, Dr. Nicholson would liken her experience to Bertrand Russell’s realization, while riding a bicycle, that he no longer cared for his wife. Nicholson wasn’t riding a bike but reading The New York Times, and the love she no longer felt was that of her country. On the eve of Independence Day she composed a Dear John (Adams? Kennedy?) letter for publication in Philosophy Now, a British monthly, with the title “Why I am not a Patriot” intended to recall Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, the latter a sadly weak work (especially when compared to his Principles of Mathematics) but still a bestseller, thanks, I suppose, to professors of philosophy.
“I am not,” she insists, “a terrorist or an evil person.” I never said she was, even as a too beautiful freshman of sixteen. “Having found no good justification for patriotism, I have chosen to withhold my love of the U.S.A. Love is one of the few things in life that cannot be compelled, and if I no longer love my country, nobody can make me do it.” How true. But what is this country she loves no longer? In an earlier essay for the same magazine on the “Pragmatic Patriotism” of New Jersey nihilist Richard Rorty she examined Rorty’s claim that “the American left, which has become as cynical and hopeless as Hegel’s weary old Europe, could benefit from a large dose of Dewey and Whitman’s optimistic romanticism. If the left could once more be imbued with a spirit of national pride, not based on military and economic power, but inspired by a moral vision of a decent and civilized society, we might have a chance of achieving our dream country.” This patriotism of the left is suspiciously like that of the neocons, despising the grubby reality of these all too real United States and their grotesquely imperfect population in favor of the dream of some vague ideal to be achieved after the hoped for (economic and cultural) revolution. Even late in 2003 Nicholson was suspicious of this rhetoric: “How can we ‘achieve our country’ in (James) Baldwin’s sense if the left becomes as arrogant as the right? Cant we strive for a dream country without having to be the best?”
To strive for a dream country: that is what so many of us were taught that patriotism is, just as the neocons strive for a dream world. By the next Fourth of July Nicholson had learned to choose reality, and who can blame her? “The best future we can hope for is one in which people love their families, friends, and neighbors and respect all human beings, but don’t waste their love on destructive and suicidal obsessions with national power. Love is too precious to spend on fuel for the raging fire that kills self-respect and independent thought and brings a curse upon the earth.” (Does one hear echoes of Ike and Tina here? “Don’t give your love to Sexy Ida, she is the sister of a black widow spider!”)
Love of family and friends, neighbor and neighborhood, and at least respect for those you don’t know well enough to love. To the traditional conservative, that’s what patriotism is all about, or at least that’s where it has to start — the circles of affection and sympathy widen out from where you stand. To the nationalist, on the other hand, patriotism is all about not having to earn your self-esteem yourself but getting it secondhand from mere membership in a group you believe superior to all other groups, and about unquestioning, inhuman loyalty to a State or Leader who embodies the Will and Destiny of that group, and about the desire to crush or at least humiliate all groups that seem to threaten one’s superiority. The American nationalist is an American. Period. The patriotic American, on the other hand, delights in diversity. He is an American, yes, but a Buckeye, Sooner, Knickerbocker, Tarheel, Nutmegger; a Greek, Turk, Jew, Bengali, Bavarian, Senegalese, Navajo, you name it, and if not all at once, he sometimes wishes he could be. Multicultural? Maybe, as far as some things go. But there is a common civic culture which unites us all, which mass immigration has not utterly destroyed, which has to do with the common decency of how you treat people. More than one immigrant who didn’t take to that culture went home in disgust. But a great many came here because they saw inklings of this common culture reflected in the popular entertainment available in their homelands, and they wanted to be part of it, even felt themselves to be part of it, long before they got on the plane. Acculturation would be more of a nightmare than it is if it hadn’t started many years and thousands of miles ago. If we often feel a greater sense of kinship with our fellow countrymen than with foreigners, it’s not because of what passport they carry, or are entitled to carry, but because we Americans tend to see some things similarly and speak the same language. When we try to reduce the common civic culture to propositional terms they seem to make a certain kind of sense in context, but when we abstract them from their living context and identify them as the essence of a nation, whatever a nation may be, or, worse, with the messianic destiny of an imperial state, we are betraying our real country even with the best intentions — and all too often with the worst ones.
What is the real America? And of course I mean my America; yours will be different, at least somewhat. Last Sunday, in my little Russian Catholic church in Little Italy, I was happy to hear the familiar voice of Father Juan singing behind the iconostasis. I call him Father Juan for your convenience; in his own language the correct spelling is “Joan,” which would be just too confusing, especially if he’s elected Pope, the first Byzantine in a good long time, but why not?
Back in Europe, he serves the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Romanian, whatever is needed at the time. But Father is an American, a citizen of the United States, retired from the Federal civil service. I assume he came here on a Spanish passport, though he would only learn the Spanish language as a prison chaplain in New York — his father, a proud and passionate Catalan nationalist, would not permit the language in his home.
But, as I said, Father Joan (there, I wrote it) is an American. Not only does he have a deep and abiding affection for our land and its people, he can recognize, as we all should, the aspirations of the men of 1776 as reflecting the social teaching of the Universal Church, much of which would not be fully developed or formulated for another century or so.
Does this make America a propositional nation of the sort Mr. Lincoln seemed to be describing at Gettysburg? I don’t think so. But I can’t deny that the vision of the Founders has a universal import, one which has drawn people from all over the world, and enabled them to weave themselves into the very fabric of our society. My grandmother was one such, and so were the Jewish families whose houses she cleaned, who treated her with greater kindness than her own flesh and blood ever had. She never forgot. Memories of such kindnesses are one thing that makes America.
The propositional nation is an unreal and dangerous abstraction, but race is a worse one. America is not the creation of political philosophy. Still less is it the expression of the genius of some sort of Anglo-Saxon race, or Anglo-Celtic race, as the Southerners like to put it. Our America is something which emerged in the course of history, under the guidance, we believe, many of us, of Providence. In this history English traditions had their part to play, especially that of Common Law, but so did the distinct folkways of the Celts, Scots, Scots-Irish, and, finally, what I can only call Irish-Irish. Not to mention the Welsh. And the Founders felt themselves under a deep debt of intellectual gratitude to the general culture of Western Europe. They believed America to be an integral part, if one specially favored by circumstance, of Western civilization, a civilization common to New England, New France, and New Spain.
America is more than New England, thank God! By 1776, the New Netherlands had been absorbed, but not without a trace and more than a trace, though New Sweden was but a memory, and a fading one at that. The New Amsterdam Dutch gave us more than Santa Claus and the Headless Horseman. They gave us an example of live and let live and mind your own business, a haven for refugees from New England like Anne Hutchinson and Lady Deborah Moody, for Jews fleeing the Brazilian inquisition, and even Quakers, at least after the farmers of Flushing remonstrated to the mother country (not their own mother country, they were English) against Pegleg Pete’s intolerance. In Lady Moody’s Gravesend, by the way, women voted. After all, she owned the place, and her word was law. I used to love taking my Puerto Rican students down to the Museum of the City of New York to see the magnificent portraits of the Latino grandees who were here before the Gringos. Their tombstones, I remarked, could still be seen, their inscriptions carved in the Hebrew alphabet. My part of New Jersey was settled by New Amsterdam Dutch who bought the land from the Lene Lenape at a fair price. And some of these Dutchmen, I learned much later, were Africans, or part African, and some of the original Africans had never been enslaved but had stowed away on Dutch ships, and prospered in the New World. (Sadly, when the English took over, people of color headed for the hills of the Ramapo and learned to call themselves Indians.)
And a continent away, the Russians were coming (the Russians were coming!) down the West Coast from Alaska, bringing with them, inspired by St. Innocent, future Patriarch of Moscow, a truly enlightened spirit toward the native peoples. (Indeed, the great struggle of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska was to convert the Aleuts from a massively enculturated Orthodox Christianity to an Anglophone Protestantism in which they would always be nothing more than obedient or rebellious subjects.) There were many deplorable things about the Empire of the Tsars, but we can be proud of the way their pioneers brought Christian civilization—I am not ashamed to call it that — to the natives of this continent, whom we cannot censure for receiving it, though our “multicultural” masters do.
All that is history. What is patriotism now? What is my country, that I may love it, if love it I somehow ought?
For the Giulianis, patriotism is all about 9/11, and the endless quest for vengeance against the enemies of Israel. For most of them, Israel itself plays a secondary role in this. If the Jews of the Middle East have to suffer along with the Arabs, that’s just too bad. The point is to teach our enemies a lesson, or rather destroy them so utterly as to be a lesson to any potential enemy. And in this moment of history, the enemy is the anti-Israel coalition. When the Lazy-Boy warriors have satisfied themselves that Iraq, Iran, and anybody else who dares to raise his head from the desert floor have been crushed, they will cheerfully turn their back on Israel as well, and the Jews of America won’t know what hit them.
To the Straussians, America represents the One True Political System of (implicitly) atheistic democratic capitalism. Any country that resists that system needs to be taught a lesson. We will teach the world out of the goodness of our hearts, and to the profit of the multinational corporations. Because we have a monopoly of truth, we must have a corresponding monopoly of deadly force, and any power that might threaten to dispute our global hegemony, or the regional hegemony of our client states, must be ruthlessly crushed. Those within the borders of the United States who cling to outmoded understandings must be swept away swiftly by waves of open immigration and campaigns of “multicultural” indoctrination by the schools and the entertainment industry.
To the Left Behinders, America is God’s chosen instrument to provoke a world war over Israel, one which will bring Jesus back on clouds of glory—and, not so incidentally, place them on heavenly thrones of judgment over their unbelieving neighbors. The flags these people wave might as well bear swastikas, for these “Christians” are full of hate, mostly against fellow Americans — blacks and women who think they should be treated as equals, sodomites, whoremongers, Catholics, and Jews. Yes, Jews—who, except for a handful of converts, they believe, will be tortured to death and beyond death for all eternity, as the righteous secretly gloat. Let the gentle reader forgive me if I am less than charitable toward these purveyors of violent and sadistic pornography, who would not emerge from their prairie gopher holes if they weren’t heavily subsidized by the your tax dollars through anonymous donations laundered in the Levant.
To the patriots of my youth, the United States stood for, in Superman’s words, truth, justice, and the American way. The American way could not be imposed on folks who weren’t American, but people who weren’t American could become Americans—as many had—and still remain themselves on Sunday mornings, and even (we are a generous people) all day Saturday. It was a live and let live patriotism. On Memorial Day, my town publicly honored those fallen in war, but I did not attend the parade regularly until I joined the band; it was a day for each family to tend its own graves and put down fresh flowers; for that reason it was generally called Decoration Day. The big patriotic celebration was the Fourth of July, and, though the local National Guard provided suitably noisy tanks to delight the little boys, the volunteer fire department was the centerpiece, with the oldest member, white-bearded, driving the lovingly maintained horse-drawn truck, giving rides to the children after the parade. It was multicultural in a small way, the Masons marching in their white gloves and top hats and the Knights of Columbus with their swords and capes and magnificent plumes, and the Lions Club with a man capering about in a lion suit, which must have been awfully hot.
Our patriotism was a patriotism of aspiration, such as Professor Nicholson once wished for, and perhaps also a quite pardonable pride that our aspirations had been realized, though imperfectly, and a half acknowledged sadness about that imperfection. My father, for one, was disappointed in the slow progress of racial equity, and when his company was forced to hire African Americans for clerical rather than merely for housekeeping positions, he was very pleased to make them welcome. If his attitude impeded his promotion, as I suspect it did, some things were more important than money. I don’t recall any desire to compare ourselves to other nations, much less to wrestle them to the ground, punch them out, and make them holler Uncle… Sam. There was a certain anxiety, sometimes acute, about the Russians, but no great bitterness over previous wars. My cousin Lloyd recalled the beauty of the Bavarian Alps beyond the fences of his P.O.W. camp, and regretted that he could not get into a plane again even to see them, having been shot down once. The Jews, who had every reason to be bitter, were not; the other Eastern Europeans, whose extended families still suffered under Communism, were, a little, some of them more than a little. Next to the fear, which must not be discounted, it was bitterness of that sort rather than any desire for military glory that fueled the Cold War on our side. At least in my small town.
This was the sort of patriotism I grew up with. Patriotism, not nationalism. Love of country, this vast jumble of a country and the vaster jumble of folks in it, and the quirky history that had made it and made us. Not some Nation, possessed of a mystical Will embodied in an Imperial State and Warlord with a World-historical Destiny—but the land and the people in it, who, in the course of time, have developed remarkably similar ways of looking at things. One small town was pretty much like another, and this was so before the malls. And Jersey City, where my parents lived in the ‘20s and’30s, is still very much Jersey City, though Germania Avenue became Liberty Avenue in 1917 and the signs on the storefronts today are in Bengali, just like the signs in Astoria (except for the signs that are in Greek).
True patriotism is necessarily libertarian, at least with a small “l,” involving a suspicion of “gummint” bordering on polite, and even not so polite, hostility. Beginning with the neighborhood, the patriot sees that politicians never deliver the real goods, that maybe you can fight City Hall, sometimes, and even work with City Hall, occasionally, but that it isn’t often worth the effort, entirely apart from utopian theories about taxation being theft and so on. And what is true of City Hall goes for the State House in spades, never mind the White House, or that Tower of Babel up on the East River. You just have to do for yourself as best you can, and decent folks will pitch in with their neighbors as well, without a bayonet at their backs. If you are a Christian, or claim to be, the Gospel of the Samaritan is clear: Don’t ask who your neighbor is; just act like one. And if you are at all honest, you will think of good people who did just that, as often as not without a written scripture to guide them — though for some reason we take so much pleasure in rather remembering all the others. In excruciating detail.
Why is Carol Nicholson — and she speaks for a great many of our generation — not a patriot? I think it is because the idea of patriotism she has been taught is itself un-American, and she is too much of an American to buy into it. But there are other, older traditions of American patriotism, which it looks like that younger folks are beginning to recover, and I have some hope that they will flourish again when our generation, the shameful generation of George Bush and Hillary Clinton, is gathered to its sadly bemused fathers.