Tuesday, July 4, 2017

On Patriotism

When I was a kid, and I was in a room with a lot of people I didn't much relate to, and who were not always nice to me or to each other, and I was told that I was supposed to feel connected to them as members of the same entity, I wasn't willing to follow along. I knew too many jerks in all my schools to feel much in the way of school pride. I knew too many Americans to believe that there was anything inherently good about Americans.

I believed in the fundamental values of freedom of speech and the ability to call authority figures to account, but schools, like families, are not democracies. They don't offer students absolute free speech. It's hard to call your authority figures to account. I've sometimes wondered if the inability of most Americans to appreciate freedom of speech and the other Enlightenment goodies in the Bill of Rights comes from the tragic fact of human nature. You don't get your basic rights until you're an adult. To embrace those rights at 18 to 21 is a rebellion against everything you have been taught.

I'm amazed by the willingness of human beings to join groups, how willing they are to enter into cults led by charismatic preachers and teachers, how willing they are to turn every radical thinker who refused any clear ideological identification into an avatar of their own movement. This goes for everybody. The opening minutes of I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) depicts the Black Lives Matter movement as a continuation of James Baldwin's struggle, despite the fact that Baldwin refused to align himself with any of the major black liberation movements of his own time. He would probably have written about BLM with great admiration and would have also happily ripped it apart. I'm amazed by Americans' willingness to surrender themselves to the myths propogated by Joseph Ellis, their, in retrospect, hilarious refusal to believe Thomas Jefferson fucked his slaves. (Overheard at the Jefferson Memorial in the Summer of 1997: "Didn't Jefferson own slaves?" "Yeah, but he was nice to them.") I'm amazed by how willing people are to surrender their voice to a narrow vocabulary, whether it be one made up of words like "sin" and "redemption" or one made up of "privilege" and "trauma." How afraid they are to admit to ideas that are so obviously true, like the fact that not every soldier is a hero.

I'm amazed by how easily the fundamental ideas of patriotism crosses borders. Go to museums in honor of soldiers in Croatia, Serbia, the U.K., Vietnam, and the U.S. and you will hear the same ideas spoken over and over again to the point where they lose all meaning. Slobodan Milošević's first name means "free" in his native language.

I may have an allergy to joining groups, but I'm not a total misanthrope. I've grown to appreciate  certain kinds of fellow feeling through the years. The best part for me from John Roberts's recent celebrated speech to a bunch of super-privileged ninth graders was not his hope that the students would feel misery so that one day that would develop some form of empathy. Oppression doesn't make people better. The opposite is true. I preferred his call to learn the names of janitors and to smile at them in the hallway.

Sometimes I give panhandlers money and sometimes I don't, but I've learned to look them in the eye and apologize if I don't want to give them anything. I've learned to be polite when I ask people to be more polite. I've learned that you always tip a dollar to the barista and that when you divide a bill you don't split it down to the dollar, or even the five dollar mark. I've learned that you gently call people out on their prejudices if you can. I've learned that you don't resent the presence of fat people or autistic children on airplanes. Talk to everyone at parties, especially the most introverted, but let people be if they don't want to talk. Small, non-aggressive touches can mean a lot if you know how to touch without being threatening. Tonight there will be fireworks here in Seattle. I won't be going to Gasworks Park, where there will be a loud, crowded gathering with bad, expensive food, and the view will be great. I will be watching the fireworks from a distance at a small dock near my home where Lake Union and Portage Bay meet. I will light up a joint and pass it to whoever is near me.

Patriotism.

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