On Patriotism


One morning last week, over my banana and bran muffin (that’s right, banana and bran muffin, not Krispy Kreme topped with bacon and chased with a Mountain Dew), I caught a commercial for that night’s Deal or No Deal.  It was touted as an “all-American” Deal or No Deal, and aside from the fact that the contestant pictured was wearing a gaudy stars-and-stripes button-down, I’m not sure what the fuck that meant.  And I’m still not sure, because I didn’t watch the show.  Maybe there were a couple of Marines in the audience.  Maybe the Banker guy was wearing an Uncle-Sam hat.

If someone dressed as Andrew Jackson had burst into the Banker’s darkened office and kicked his ass, then that would have made for a truly “all-American” Deal or No Deal — but I’m reasonably certain that this did not happen.

Andrew Jackson
I'm Andrew Jackson.  Woooo.  I am for real.

Remember the last paragraph?  Good.  Then now would be the time to tell you that, aside from being funny, it did two things.  Firstly, it referenced Jackson’s 1832 veto of the charter renewal of the Second Bank of the United States.  Secondly, it served to split the readers of this essay into two groups.

The first group consists of people who didn’t get the joke until I explained it, were pissed off that I made the getting of a joke dependent on obscure historical trivia, and subsequently labeled me an “elitist” brimming with “fancy book learning” who is primarily concerned with “showing off how smart I am.”  The second group consists of people who did get the joke, but are appalled that I referenced Andrew Jackson in a complimentary way, seeing as how he owned slaves, hated Indians, thought war was cool, etc.

The first group is called Conservatives, and the second is called Liberals.  Both of their reactions to the joke were equally stupid, for reasons that will be explained over the course of this essay. 

But, in addition to being stupid, both reactions were also — in their own ways — patriotic.  The conservative reaction despised the smug exclusivity of the act of needling outsiders from within a sphere of knowledge to which most people, for whatever reason, don’t have access.  The liberal reaction despised the apparent celebration of a demagogic President who was, in other ways, equally smug and exclusionary.  Both reactions spring from readers who have internalized the inherently American principle dictating that people privileged by historical accident should not be tolerated in their attempts to lord it over others.  Though the two reactions are — currently — cultural opposites, they are also different versions of the same thing.

Each reaction encapsulates something that its respective reactors applaud the progress of, and dream for the continuance of, whenever they see anything that seems to them to signify America.  For some, apparently, a starts-and-stripes shirt on a game-show contestant achieves this — Deal or No Deal wouldn’t make commercials like that if it didn’t boost ratings — while for others, such a display approaches the parodic.

And this is the problem with symbols in general.  Display one on your shirt, or your commercial, or both, and your audience will take it to mean whatever they wish it to mean.  Tell them what you think it means, and they will either agree or disagree, but in either case this obliterates the necessity of the symbol itself.  You only need a symbol when the idea it stands for is busy doing something else.

When people ask me whether I'm for or against flag-burning, I always say the same thing:  that I am for burning the flag for a good reason, and against burning it for a bad reason.  This response may seem to be dodging the question, but it isn’t — it’s refocusing the question into a more productive one:  what would or would not constitute a good reason to burn the flag?  If you aren’t having a conversation about this, then you’re only having a conversation about the action, instead of the idea, and that’s pointless.  There are, of course, some who wish to pass a Constitutional Amendment against flag burning — which, I guess, implies that they would never admit of there being a viable reason to do so.  If pressed, though, even they would have to concede the possibility of the government someday doing something so odious that any reasonable person would consider burning the flag in protest to be a viable option.  The question itself is meaningless; it's like asking whether you are for or against punching people — the only possible answer is that it depends on what the person did.  Yes, some people have a much longer list than others of actions that merit a punch in the face, but the fact remains. 

Everybody knows that Samuel Johnson called patriotism “the last refuge of scoundrels” (or at least knows the expression itself, if not who said it — sorry about the fancy book learning again).  What most don’t realize, however, is that this was not a comment about patriotism, but rather one about scoundrels.  It means that people who cannot justify their ideas — or themselves — by any other methods will rely at the last gasp upon emotional appeals to group unity.  If emotional appeals to group unity were all that patriotism ever consisted of, then this famous quote would serve equally well as a comment about patriotism — but this is not the case.

Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.  Back when I had a (shitty) job going door-to-door collecting funds for an organization that assisted schools in impoverished areas, I eventually noticed something (in addition to the fact that the job sucked, which I noticed immediately).  I noticed that the surest indicator of the fact that going up to a particular house was a waste of time was an American flag hung beside the door.  It meant that the person who lived there was a Conservative who was at least going to slam the door in my face, and possibly make fun of me for a minute first before doing so.  Now, this was the use of the American flag primarily as an indicator of group unity — the group in question being upper-middle-class suburbanites who don’t particularly care about whether poor kids have decent schools.  If the group in question had been simply Americans — as the flag was designed to suggest — then that would have included the poor kids.  But the former version of patriotism appeals to Conservatives more than the latter.  The Republican Senatorial candidate from the state I lived in at the time even had campaign commercials that made fun of door-to-door charity workers, depicting them all as ditzy teenagers who smoked a lot of pot.

Granted, I did in fact smoke a lot of pot at the time, but still, that doesn’t mean building better schools for poor kids is a bad thing.

So is this just an essay that’s pissed off about how conservative ideas of “patriotism” are ass-backwards?  No.  There are already a million essays like that on the web, and I’m sick of them.  This essay is just as — if not more — pissed off at Liberals for simply handing off a monopoly on patriotism to the Conservatives.

I don’t know how many of you have seen it, but there’s this great cartoon in syndication on Sunday mornings called Liberty’s Kids that’s about the Revolutionary War.  Yes, it’s for kids, and yes, it’s basically an animated history lesson, but it’s still a great cartoon.  I wish it had been on when I was a kid.

One day, a friend of mine came over while I was watching it.  She laughed, rolled her eyes, and asked “Why do you watch that conservative cartoon?”

And this is a problem.

This is a problem because Liberty’s Kids isn’t by any means conservative.  Yes, the Founders are characters in it, but they’re portrayed as humans, not as Gods, with personal failings and foibles included.  There are important women characters, important Black characters, and the French are included as valuable allies rather than written out of the story completely.  In short, it’s pretty much as liberal a cartoon as you could possibly make about the Revolutionary War, and still have it actually be about the actual Revolutionary War with any degree of historical accuracy.  If my friend had called it “that lame cartoon,” I guess that’d be fine, because I guess any attempt to “make learning fun” does technically qualify as “lame.”  But she didn’t call it “lame” — she called it conservative.


It can’t be because of the “learning” angle — after all, learning equals school, and everybody knows that school is liberal.  So I guess it’s because the show is about, you know, the Revolutionary War and America and stuff, and because, despite the positive women characters, Black characters, French characters, etc., it still dares to come down on the side that “the Revolutionary War and America and stuff” are, you know, good things.


Thanks.  Glad we could get that cleared up.

But despite the fact that we just got that cleared up and it’s not a problem anymore, let’s keep talking about it — you know, as if it were still a problem, just for shits and giggles.

America is inherently an experiment in liberalism.  It was founded on liberal principles and won its existence at the cost of a liberal war, to the extent that there can possibly be such a thing as a liberal war.  Every great American has been a liberal, if defined in relation to the issues of their day.  America is and has been a great country to the extent that it is liberal and, when less great than it could be, it is less great in proportion to its being less liberal than it could be.  Only an idiot would ever argue against any of this.  So why is it conservative to display an American flag, or watch a cartoon about the Revolutionary War, and liberal to make fun of doing these things?

The short and entertaining answer is that nearly everyone in the country is stupid.  The long and less-entertaining answer, presented in as truncated a form as possible without being inaccurate, is as follows:

Our contemporary battle lines of liberal and conservative were drawn in the 1960s and have very little to do with the preexisting definitions of those terms.  Throughout the previous history of America, liberal meant pursuing equal rights and economic security for as many people as possible and supporting the strengthening of the Federal government to the extent necessary to secure and subsequently ensure these things (okay, Jefferson was a states-rightser, so the last thing has only been true of the American left since Madison — fine, but remember that the last thing only involves a disagreement over how best to achieve the goals, and is not itself one of the goals).  Fast-forward through a ton of victories for the little guy, and you arrive at the 1950s, which saw the explosion of suburbanism.  Thanks to a century-and-a-half of victories for liberalism, there was finally an enormous middle class that not only didn’t have to worry about starving to death, but didn’t even have to work 18-hour days in some fucked-up factory to maintain this security.

But people who grow up without having to worry about starving to death start to notice other shit.  And, based on the other shit that got noticed, our mental picture of the 1950s went from being the great victory of liberalism to the very essence of conservatism.  The suburban explosion went from being about a huge segment of the population finally being able to make decent lives for themselves, to being about “white flight” and racism.  The suburban family went from being about the fact that these decent lives could be sustained on a single income, to being about the fact that the single income was the man’s whereas the woman was expected to stay home vacuuming in high heels.  Bourgeois went from being the prize that the left has historically fought to extend to increasing amounts of people, to being an insult used against those who do not have a sufficient number of tattoos and piercings.  The left became torn between defining itself contra that which is conservative, and defining itself contra that which is “lame.”  The word teenager did not exist before the 1950s, and now teenagers, of both the literal and spiritual varieties, are the arbiters of civilization.

Hey, how can it be offensive if it's true?
Okay, point taken, but you could still sustain
a middle-class family on a single income.

Once again:  this is not a conservative critique of liberalism — it is a liberal critique of liberalism, based on the fact that the current liberal self-definition of liberalism is helping the conservatives.  The proof of this can be seen everywhere:  young people are turning conservative because it is uncool to learn enough about politics to become liberal; the gay-marriage debate could have been won by now if it hadn’t taken so long for gay people to admit that they wanted something as lame as marriage rights; Black males are declining to attend college because educated Blacks are seen as sell-outs by their communities of origin (I am taking this on the authority of Chris Rock, so if you disagree, take it up with Chris Rock); feminism could have won by now if it had concentrated on getting women into elected office instead of on stupid shit like getting pissed at men who open the door for you (I refer you to Western European nations where women are way more successful in political and corporate life despite the fact that it is still acceptable to whistle at them on the street); and, of course, liberals don’t hang American flags on their front porches, and they refuse to watch a cartoon about the Revolutionary War even if it is a really awesome cartoon. 

Don’t get me wrong.  We realize that racism, sexism, etc. were/are serious problems, and I’m not suggesting that less attention should have been paid to them at the time, or that addressing them now needs to “take a backseat” to any particular other thing.  Addressing them was the logical next move and the right thing to do.  I’m only trying to do something about the confusion caused by the manner in which they were addressed, so that we can move forward.  The confusion came about because of the fact that young people who wanted to try and fix these things in the 1960s weren’t able to do so by joining any particular political party — problems of social inequality weren’t being caused by the right or the left, but were simply the property of “the establishment.”  So the only way to address them was by identifying yourself not as right or as left, but only as young.  The problem with this is, you can’t really retain young as a political identity for very long.  These people grew up a little and became the left of the 1970s, but then they all went nuts and voted for Reagan for some reason.  When this happened, a giant vacuum was created, and by the time everybody finished flopping around, no-one knew what the fuck liberal meant anymore, except for the facts that racism and sexism are bad, and “cool” things are good.

This is why the 1990s became the decade of identity politics.  And this is what ended up fucking the left so hard that George W. Bush happened, and here we are:  in a society where a clothing store owned by a Conservative can sell t-shirts that say “Voting is for Old People” to liberal teenagers, and it totally works.

Voting, after all, was thought up by Dead White Males.  The current generation of young Americans has been presented with the choice of seeing the Founders either as demigods inerrant in every way (especially, for some reason, about shit they didn’t even believe and clearly would have been totally against, like the idea that America should be a Christian theocracy), or as hypocritical slave-owning bastards. 

Neither view of them is particularly accurate, or particularly productive.  The Founders were geniuses of political and social philosophy, some more so than others, but they were also personally flawed in many ways (except for Franklin, who was perfect).   But this isn’t the issue.  In fact, back-and-forth conversations that focus on the Founders as people are the whole problem.  They are important insofar as they came up with ideas — their good ideas were good, and their bad ideas were bad.  That should be simple enough, but identity politics has made it impossible even to talk about good ideas and bad ideas anymore.  Ideas must now be white ideas, Black ideas, male ideas, straight or gay ideas, and so on.  The post-’60s left will not admit of objective truth, which, as I’ve said before, is a pretty fucking bad strategy, considering that the left is actually objectively right about most things and could do a good job of pressing this advantage if it would just stop fucking itself up with stupid shit.

Once again:  the ’60s were not a mistake.  They were unavoidable.  The fucking Civil War was probably unavoidable too, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have to clean up afterwards.  That’s what Reconstruction was.  And future generations will probably end up seeing the fifty years straddling the turn of the 21st Century as the Reconstruction that followed the 1960s.  After the Civil War, the Northern Republicans (remember that the Republicans were the good guys then) were divided between those who wanted to keep punishing the “rebels” and those who wanted to get the idea of “the rebels” out of the nation’s mind as quickly as possible.  Abe Lincoln was of the latter mindset — but, unfortunately, he got shotted ing da heed.    

Now, we have the opposite problem.  After the 1960s, the rebels were victorious — at least in the sense that, for many people, the left has become synonymous with the counterculture.  And because of that, young people now grow up with inter-counterculture skirmishes being their top priority:  but, if you are older than 14, it is retarded to argue about Goths vs. Hippies, because both Goths and Hippies are parts of the left, or are supposed to be.  And whether you’re a Goth or a Hippie, the odds are that your teacher is more liberal than you anyway, despite the fact that homework is not fun.  We can’t keep punishing “the establishment,” because there is no establishment to punish.  There is only America — big, lame, boring America that you have to learn about in books.

Speaking of books, that reminds me that we didn’t want to finish the essay without mentioning to the Conservatives that their whole animus against “fancy book learning” is fucking retarded too.  Seriously.  I’ve been screamed at about patriotism by people and then asked them to name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, and they can’t do it.  I’ve been screamed at about patriotism by people who think that Pearl Harbor happened during Vietnam.  And then when I correct them, they call me an elitist snob.  Seriously, we’ve got the internet now.  There’s nothing elitist about fucking Wikipediaing some shit you don’t know about.

In fact, that’s where I’ll close off on the whole patriotism thing.  If you ever meet me, and you want to scream at me about patriotism, I’m going to ask you to recite the Gettysburg Address.  If you can do it, I’ll listen to you.  Come on, it’s only like a paragraph long.  It’s real good, and you can memorize it in the time it would take you to watch a TV show.

Deal or no deal?

read more awesome 1585 essays.

like and follow The 1585 on Facebook.

blog comments powered by Disqus