Monday, July 04, 2011

Curmudgeonly Thoughts on Patriotism and the Fourth

Let's just say I'm not much of a flag-waver. I have always been a little ambivalent about the Fourth of July holiday. As a historian, I understand the significance of what happened on this date in 1776, and our collective need to commemorate it. And in terms of our history, it is the colonial era--whether it be English, French, Spanish or Dutch--that most interests me. I wholeheartedly agree that our Revolution and the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence which set our course as a nation are truly remarkable events in world history.

That said, a realistic, even-handed reading of the struggle reveals that George III made for an unlikely villain, and that of Britain's many possessions, we were the most pampered, privileged and prosperous. The Seven Years War (our French and Indian War) nearly bankrupted the Empire. And when asked to pony-up our share of the massive debt the Crown incurred in defending these very same colonies, well, the colonists were having none of it. We had been left to our own devices for too long, it seems. And the only thing that separated our glorious revolution from an ignominious one was the fact that we got away with it (thank you, France.) None of this means we should not celebrate the occasion, I'm just saying that I have never been carried away by all the hoopla surrounding the day.

When I was about 12 years old, I remember a conversation between my mother and my uncle--her brother-in-law. My mother was working in the kitchen, as usual, and my uncle was sitting there on a stool, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, no doubt, talking away. Two more dissimilar people could not be found, but they enjoyed each other's company, even though he was much more the conversationalist. My mother was the most literal, matter-of-fact person you would ever encounter. She did not speak the language of nuance and subtlety and shaded meanings. Symbolism was lost on her. Mother said exactly what she was thinking, regardless, and in her view it was the right thing to say because it was what she believed. As would be expected, this created lots of controversies through the years, but my dad was usually there to smooth things over, or at least pick up the pieces. She was fiercely loyal, but only to her tribe, her blood kin. It went no further. My uncle was a career Navy man. A life at sea had rescued him from both the Great Depression and an aimlessness in life. He circumnavigated the world 3 times and served in World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War. His experiences gave him a perspective my mother could never imagine.

Anyway, the conversation somehow turned to "the Flag." My uncle spoke eloquently of the honor and respect due the flag and its symbolism, etc. My mother, almost off-handedly, remarked that it did not mean anything to her at all, that it was just a piece of cloth. My uncle was left speechless, one of the few times I ever saw him at a loss for words. The discussion continued on, with my uncle becoming increasing frustrated with my mother's intransigence on the issue. And while I understood my mother's thinking--even at that age--I nevertheless sympathized with my uncle.

So, the Fourth was never a major holiday in our home. Generally, it fell during hay-baling season, so the day off simply meant that there was a good chance I would spend it in the hay field. There was always a good meal that night, perhaps with homemade ice cream, but that would be about it. Fireworks were never considered--"foolishness" in my mother's eyes.

My attitude at this stage of life lies somewhere between my uncle's and my mother's view. My "patriotism," if you want to call it that, or at least my loyalties, have much more to do with a particular piece of dirt that I live on, or my family lives on or has lived on. I have no particular feelings about our flag, or any other. In that sense, I recognize that I am my mother's son. I find American history to be unique, but not exceptional. We are not the end of history. Given enough time, there will be other configurations within what is now the United States, some maybe sooner than we would otherwise believe.

I respect and honor our soldiers, and now feel some regret that I did not serve in the armed forces myself. And when the caskets or maimed bodies of our young men are returned home from Mesopotamia or the Hindu Kush, from these most incomprehensible of incomprehensible wars, I am deeply saddened for them, their families and the utter waste of it all. And no amount of flag-waving, parades, Star-Spangled-Bannering or politicians eulogizing about their sacrifice in "defense" of our country helps one damn bit.


Reader John said...

I had no similar family conversation, but I ended up in substantially the same place, as you probably are aware.

Thanks for the history lesson on George III, too.

Jimmy Levendia said...

My perspective of flag waving and nationalism (and indeed, of the War of Independence) is similar to what you described, but derived somewhat differently.
Born and raised in Canada and curious about the history of this particular piece of turf, I got a view of American history and government from "the other side", the Tory Loyalist side. After all, Canada held the French Canadians who stuck with the British Crown in fear of American land-hunger and anti-Catholicism; the Quebec Act which guaranteed protection for the Catholic Church & French language was considered one of the "Intolerable Acts" by the revolutionaries. The fleeing Black slaves and Anglo-American loyalists who suffered for their freely given loyalty to the Crown added to the mix.
The main difference between our two countries at this point seems to be that the American people labour under a grotesque guerrilla-revolutionary Enlightenment constitution (somewhat better than a Marxist one, I suppose...) , and a "civil religion" that does a good job of papering over the flaws and drowning out constructive thought.
Having said that, it's human nature (and honorable human nature at that) to love the country one was born and grew up in, the one that shaped you in a thousand and more ways. It's understandable to enjoy celebration with one's fellow citizens, and see importance in the symbols of that love and loyalty.
There were several people in my own family like your mother, with strong tribal & family loyalties and few others. Canada was a cold alien place, its inhabitants were "xenoi", foreigners. Canada meant a paycheck, nothing more. Flag, Crown, Parliament, Nation? A pack of lies, told by scoundrels, to fool the gullible. Yet these same stolid, skeptical, hard headed people, supposedly impervious to symbolism, had no trouble seeing the value in hanging glass beads coloured like blue eyes from walls, necklaces, and rear-view mirrors to avert the evil eye. They also had little enough trouble seeing the symbolic value of the dirty and torn pieces of coloured paper they carried around in their wallets, that they worked and slaved long hours in bakeries and assembly lines for. In my younger and crueler years, I commented on these things like your mother commented on the flag. They all reacted like your uncle;)

Sorry for the big comment. Your story triggered off many associations for me...

Terry (John) said...

Reader John and Jimmy,
Thanks for your comments. I hope I did not come across as an old crank. That was not my intention. Whether it is history, or foreign policy, I simply prefer realism over idealogy, and too much of our "civil religion" is an air-brushed view of our history.

Jimmy, no apologies needed for the long comment--I found it all pretty intriguing. Your view from the Canadian side of things reminded me of something I only recently discovered about my own kin. The family of my surname settled in the Pequea Valley of PA in 1720. My branch pushed on to the Carolinas early on, but there were still plenty of relatives remaining in southeastern PA during the Revolution. A widowed aunt had a son, David, who had fought under the British during the French and Indian War. He was captured by the French (where I don't know) and was actually held prisoner in France. When the Revolution came, it is no wonder he remained loyal to the Crown. When the colonials re-established control in the area in the late 1770s, he was arrested, charged with treason and summarily hung in Philadelphia. The colonial government of PA confiscated his 400 acre farm, forcing my Aunt Margaret to buy it back at a truly exorbitant price for that day (17,000 pounds.) Accounts such as this are not the sort of thing we hear of in the official versions of our history.


“a grotesque guerrilla-revolutionary Enlightenment constitution”

I like that.

Milton T. Burton said...

I am in agreement. But you probably already knew that. Two things that always embarrass me are flag-waving patriotism and men who brag about their sexual prowess. I think the two have the same root: the human imagination.

Kirk said...

John, I can really relate to your writing here. I increasingly regret not serving in the armed forces. The camaraderie alone would have been worth it. Add to that the probability of world travel, and I am ashamed that I didn't join up. However, I graduated high school in the mid-eighties and, although we were still engaged in the Cold War, it didn't seem like America would ever go to war again. How naive I was.

Regarding the flag, I remember several years ago one of the biggest faux pas of my life. The lawyers in my county were having a meeting, and we were discussing the increasingly shabby appearance of the gold-fringed American flag which hung behind the judge's bench. I thought a Texas flag should hang there or, in the very least, both the Texas and American flag should hang behind the judge. We were, after all, a STATE COURT. I foolishly referred to the Star-Spangled Banner as "that goofy flag." One of the lawyers who was present is a retired army officer, and my comment offended him greatly. I wish I had made my point another way...

James the Thickheaded said...

There are times that love of country is like loving a wayward child busy having an adolescent moment, and others when it comes easy. I think most of us find it is not without blood, sweat and tears... but whether we care to admit it or not, we are more one people than we realize. I think it was Studs Terkel who said the character, humor, and good nature of the American soldier had hardly changed in 40 years... even though the soldiers look completely different today. I think we can take some pride in E Pluribus Unum... as a lofty goal. We don't always live up to it, and maybe we aren't worthy of it more often than not, and maybe it's more myth than reality, but it beats a number of the alternative myths out there.

Do we have a lot of fixing up to do around here? Sure. Do we appear to have an apalling lack of ideas on what to do to fix it? Sure. Will we get it done? Sure. Won't happen on my watch. But it will happen. The limit of my vision does not limit the reality and prospects for what will transpire.

Apophatically Speaking said...

If you haven't done so already, "Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag" By Carolyn Mervin is a worthwhile read. A shocking premise which is bound to make you look at our flag from a different angle.

Aglaios said...

"And no amount of flag-waving, parades, Star-Spangled-Bannering or politicians eulogizing about their sacrifice in "defense" of our country helps one damn bit."

I like your post, but think you went a little too far here. Not everything ought to be ascribed to Neo-Con pep-rally pseudo-patriotism. As westerners we Americans still honor our war dead with customary rites and ceremonies (be they parades or flag-waving) in the tradition of Pericles of Athens even it the wars in which they died might be questionable. At the very least this is an acknowledgment that these troops did the duty they were called to do and sacrificed themselves for their brothers in arms and for the nation they swore to defend. All nations have their forms of national piety. More traditional cultures have a myriad of public days, festivals, days honoring the dead, nationalistic customs etc... take any East European country like Serbia for example. July 4th is one of the few days Americans can call their own and I for one will celebrate it to the max as one of our few pious public festivals celebrating the cultural mythos of the United States.

Aglaios said...

Though I myself did fly a Texas flag this past July 4th.
Texas is my country.

Iraq was a disaster. Afghanistan however, is different- we might as well kick some Islamic ass while we're over there. Granted history tells us it'll return to the same Islamic armpit it's always been within 10 years after we leave. While we're there for the time being I am happy to celebrate the retreat and hopeful demise of the Taliban. And I am happy to wave a flag while thinking of American boots standing on the necks of medieval jihadi wannabe's (I wish to the Soviets had won in the first place!). I am pissed off at my country to the extent that we ever helped the jihadis repel the Soviets in the first place (see Rambo III).

Terry (John) said...


"went a little too far" you say?

Surely you know me well enough by now to know that I am the very soul of moderation and restraint.

You might be interested in what Andrew Bacevich has to say about this sort of thing: