Saturday, July 5, 2008

America the aesthetically unobjectionable

Today we Americans celebrated our common heritage by charring the entrails of hoofed mammals and blowing up quadrants of the sky. As ritual sacrifice goes, it’s all a bit solipsistic and gluttonous, but then so is the nation thus aptly signified.

On Monday, Barack Obama gave his ‘what patriotism means to me’ speech, cleverly completing his long-delayed 4th grade social studies project while simultaneously reassuring heartland America that he is neither a black separatist nor John Kerry. The precise content of this speech wasn’t particularly important, provided the audience understood that Barack Obama loves apple pie, his grandma, puppy dogs, and you, my fellow Americans, you. So put down the pitchfork.

Patriotism, somewhat trivially, means love and loyalty to one’s nation. But this is often far from trivial in the individual case. Is a patriotic citizen of Montreal loyal to Quebec, to Canada – or even to the global Francophony? Where belong the loyalties of refugees in the permanent camps across the river from the West Bank? To the perpetually zygotic Palestinian state? The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan? The Dar al-Islam?

Most Americans enjoy the conceptual luxury of having been born, raised, and indoctrinated within and by the same fairly discrete political entity. But even this doesn’t quite solve the problem. To what, exactly, is a patriotic American loyal? To the government? To a myriad of federal bureaucrats, to a clutch of vain ephemeral politicians, to some monstrously scenic granite forewalls in Washington DC? Or to the history? To George Washington’s wooden teeth, to the pocket contents of Lincoln’s fatal theater jacket, to the hot tub where Franklin Delano Roosevelt expired in a most agreeably patrician manner?

The certified correct answer, of course, is that a patriotic American is loyal to American ideals, just as a patriotic __________ is loyal to __________ ideals. So said Obama on Monday: “patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it's also loyalty to America's ideals, ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion.”

The mildly Socratic among you have already formulated the next step: what, exactly, are American ideals? Celebrity worship? Cheap gasoline? Equal rights for all, so long as it doesn’t mean that I have to live next door to those people? At this point in the dialectic, serious politicians bleat safely vacant platitudes about freedom, family, and fortune.

And this is all we really expect of our candidates; except for the tin foil hat constituency, none of us really worry that the next president will decide, free-agent style, to go home with the other team at the big diplomatic summit. In political practice, affirmations of patriotism are ultimately about non-weirdness. Obama’s patriotic avowals aren’t promises to avoid defecting to Pakistan or Sweden. They are signals to Middle America that he won’t personally officiate at gay marriages in San Francisco or gleefully pass out bricks at the next big-city race riot.

So for politicians, patriotism actually has little to do with love of country, and everything to do with exhibiting the dispositional profile of your standard Midwestern bank teller. But what about the rest of us? We whose aspirations do not necessitate the adulation of throngs or the sweaty-palmed groping of the levers of power, might patriotism mean anything more to us? Should it? Those are difficult questions. Let’s go have a beer and watch the public shaming of the stars’ obsolete monochromatic twinkle.