Friday, July 03, 2015

Tribe Trumps Treatise

If you understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it, then imaginatively you recognize that possibility for other places and other people, so that if you wish well to your own place, and you recognize that your own place is a part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world. 

In return you hope for the world’s well-wishing toward your place.

And this is a different impulse from the impulse of nationalism. This is what I would call patriotism: the love of a home country that’s usually much smaller than a nation. 

Wendell Berry

(Note:  Please ignore this post if you are intend to have a happy-clappy Fourth of July)

It seems I am a poor patriot, or at least in the modern understanding of the word.  Of all our civic holidays, this one leaves me the most ambivalent:  no flags flying, no fireworks, no hot dogs.  Nada.
I’m afraid mon confreres around here concluded long ago that I’ve probably read too much, traveled too far, and have consequently become--as an in-law once succinctly (and accurately) put it--“so strange.”   But really, my Fourth of July skepticism goes all the way back.
July 4th was one of the three holidays during the year when my dad would shut down the office, the others being Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  But this hardly meant that we took the day off.  Rather, it gave my dad free rein to schedule a full day of farm work.  He was no gentleman rancher, but a true Texas cowboy.  He had every intention of being a rancher, though fate and the Depression temporarily derailed that ambition.  As it turned out, Dad lived his working life not in cattle country, but within the confines of the Old South.   To the extent that he saw himself as successful professionally, it was only in that it allowed him to become what he always meant to be, a cattleman.  And so, on the Fourth, we usually had some kind of big round-up planned, or moving cattle, or penning cattle, or vaccinating cattle, or cutting cattle.  None of this took with me.  I had rather been off somewhere with my head in a book.  Why couldn’t we just leave the cows alone to eat their grass in peace?
If not that, then there was often hay on the ground during this day.  Invariably the hay-haulers would be a no-show or a partial-show, or there would be a threat of rain, meaning that everyone had to jump in and get the hay in the barn.  And we bailed a lot of hay.  I actually grew to enjoy the camaraderie with the hay-hauling, and could stack hay better than my brother.

We would come home to a large meal that my mother had been preparing all day, mostly from our own beef or chickens, and our own garden produce.  There’d be a couple of pies, a pound cake, and glory of glories—my mother’s homemade rolls.  She would’ve heaped scorn on the idea of hot dogs and chips.  My dad might bust a watermelon or, even make some homemade ice cream.  At the end of the day, we would finally lounge-around a bit, and then my dad would tell stories.  He was a natural at this sort of thing.  We listened to his tales that we had often heard many times before; of the days of his youth, or anecdotes he overheard from his elders, etc.  My mom was not much of a story-teller, but was there to insert a dose of reality if his tale-telling became too expansive.
And so, that was it:  no flag-flying and no fireworks (I faintly recall once holding a sparkler in my hand as a small child, but this sort of thing fell within that broad category that my mother characterized as “foolishness.”  The lesson stuck, because I do not ever recall buying any as an adult.)  There were no hot dogs, nor goings-on about freedom and liberty, nor references to “our troops.”  Nope, none of that.  My memory and understanding of “patriotism,” was little more than an allegiance to very particular people, and to very particular places, both experienced and in memory—our family “myth,” if you will.  Any larger understanding of Patriotism with a capital “P” probably went no farther than an appreciation for a country that allowed my people to live out their lives in the manner that they did.  I was very much at home with Wendell Berry’s definition of patriotism for three or four decades before I ever heard of the man.

I remember a conversation from almost 50 years ago between my mother and one of my favorite uncles.  He was a career Navy man and somehow he had made a casual reference to the flag, in the context of patriotism.  My mother, ever the literalist, shocked her brother-in-law by matter-of-factly stating that it was nothing more than a piece of cloth.  I was sympathetic to my uncle, of course, but it was my mother’s attitude that stuck with me.  It is has been many years since I have said the Pledge of Allegiance.  Oh, I’ll go through the motions—I’ll stand and put my hand over my heart, but the words do not come out of my mouth.  I just don’t feel right about it.  Patriotism is one thing, nationalism something altogether different.

For the last two years, I’ve been in the Republic of Georgia during their Independence Day celebrations.  I found it all great fun, this comic-opera militaristic display of bravado, with housewives foundling bazookas and children clambering about upon tanks and hum-vees parked on the city plaza.  Upon reflection, however, such nationalistic fervor is as unsettling in the Georgian context as it is here or anywhere else.

I do enjoy the Georgian flag, however.  This is a flag one can be enthusiastic about:  a blood red cross on a field of white, with four smaller red crosses, each located in the quadrants formed by the larger cross.  I intended to buy one while there, but my son (in an acorn-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree episode) quizzed me pointedly about it.  Why was I buying a flag and what did I intend to do with it?  His larger point (retained from Scouting) is that flags are not to be treated casually.  If you are going to deal with a flag, then know that there is a tradition and protocol for doing so, and then follow it.  In this, he came down on the side of his great-uncle, rather than his grandmother.  And, as it turned out, all the flags I saw for sale on the day before Independence Day, were nowhere to be found the day after.

I can deal with most of the silliness on the Fourth.  I have earplugs if they turn up the Lee Greenwood or Toby Keith.  I guess it is the rhetoric that gets to me.  Sometimes, we actually need to stop and think about the words that come out of our mouths.  I love our history.  I really do.  I've spent a lifetime studying it.  We are truly unique in so many ways--but this is due to many factors, not the least of which is the simple accident of geography.  What it is not dependent upon, however, is any intrinsic superiority of our own.    

And that is where I part company with the civic observance of the Fourth.  We often seem incapable of praising our unique American-ness without using language that characterizes it in terms of superiority.  Unique is not the same thing as exceptional.  American Exceptionalism--the child of Wilsonian Democracy and the grandchild of Manifest Destiny--is our besetting sin.  The last time I checked, Pride was still a vice.  And we all know what it goeth before.  Let me know if you ever see a bumper sticker that says "Humble to be an American."    

In this morning's local paper (the reading of which is a bad habit that I can't seem to shake, for it is truly toxic), a columnist wrote of talking with members of her "small group" from church who had just returned from a 10-day mission trip to Russia, where they had been teaching English using the Bible.  She asked their impressions of the country and heard about how thankful they were to get back here where there were fully-stocked shelves in the stores.  The main quote, however, was that the people were hungry for "God, freedom, and anything American."  There you have it--the way we look at ourselves and at the rest of the world.  If this quote strikes you as anything other than self-serving crap, then my entire post will likely be incomprehensible. 

I also wish Americans knew more about the Revolution we celebrate.  I think someone once said something to the effect that a revolution is only a rebellion until it is successful.  And so, our “Revolution” was only such after Yorktown--before that it was a rebellion.  I am not just playing with words here.  On the Fourth, one will hear politicians and other unlearned types wax eloquently about the struggle for our “freedoms,” and “liberty,” and the sacrifices of “our troops”, etc.  Just for good measure, they may also throw in a line about fighting to be able to worship the way that we please.  It won’t matter—no one in their audiences will likely know the difference.  That is our Founding Myth.  

There are myths and then there are myths--most have an element of truth, but some are truer than others.  The hard fact of the matter, however, is this:  our rebellion cum revolution was fought over economic considerations; tax policies, if you will.  Americans did not, nor do they yet, like to pay taxes.  From the beginning, we have demonized those we oppose, so as to cast the particular war in moralistic terms.  And so, George III becomes a tyrant, an evil oppressor in our telling.  I will just say this, the "oppression" was relatively benign, and as "ruthless tyrants" go, George III is way down the list.  I am not saying that the war could have been avoided, for there was a certain inevitability about it all.  England had kept us on such a loose rein for so long that we forgot that the rope was even there.  I am simply saying that the war was not exactly what it is broadly perceived to have been.

And finally, there is the Declaration of Independence itself, a document that has quite literally changed the course of world history.  The language soars.  Jefferson had a way with the written word, to be sure.  My skepticism, however, comes right at the very first:  those “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I no more believe in unalienable rights than I believe in the concept of progress.  They are not made true simply because Locke and Jefferson say so.  One finds no basis for them in the Christian Scriptures, which, if anything, promise suffering, death and alienation from the world.  They are indeed worthy goals for any society, but come about only after the hard work of citizenship to first create, and then secure them.

These concepts are the underpinnings of Americanism.  Traditionally, all it took to become an American was to land on these shores, buy into these ideals, and learn a bit of English. In America today, however, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can mean anything and everything. And many worry that historic understandings of the concepts behind the words have been stretched and twisted almost beyond all recognition.  One can gather much more evidence supporting the view that America is fracturing than one can to support any coalescence.  So my very real concern--taking the long view--is whether a document and the beliefs it extols are enough to create and mold "a people."  Is it enough and will it be enough in the future?  We are 239 years along—nothing much at all, taking the long view of history.  I am not an apochalypsticist, for to paraphrase Adam Smith, “there’s a lot of ruin” left in us.   At this point, it is not a matter of “will the center hold,” for there is no real center that I can detect.  Maybe the fringes will hold.  Either way, it will be interesting to see how the experiment plays out.  Unlike most Americans, however, I just know that it is neither foreordained nor assured that it will do so.  I also know that most every time, when all is said and done, that tribe trumps treatise.

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