Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Fourth of July look at patriotism

What is patriotism, really? Eymologically, it is the love of the Fatherland. Well, you know where I can go with that, but I won't bother.

The emotional intensity of whatever it is we call patriotism probably derives from something basic in our genetic heritage. We are social animals, after all. For several million years, our primate and hominid forebears lived in small groups, and no doubt an intense loyalty to those groups was necessary for human survival. But instinctive loyalty to a group of family and friends who protected one another from leopards and roving marauders is a very different thing from that same instinct turned to witless support for a series of immoral wars, and all manner of terrible abuses of human dignity at home and abroad, sold to us because those wars, and those abuses, are the policies of the nation-state you or I happen to have been born in, and come to us wrapped in the flag and decorated with magnetic yellow ribbons you can stick on your SUV.

This is a country which has always talked the talk--read the Declaration of Independence for proof of that--but rarely walked the walk. "All men are created equal." I believe that myself, but it was written by slave-owners who wouldn't dream of letting women or propertyless men vote.

We are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--unless you were a person kidnapped in Africa and brought here to work in the fields, or unless you were one of the Native Americans killed or ethnically cleansed in vast numbers, or unless you were one of several hundred thousand Filipinos murdered to extend an American empire to the Pacific, or unless you were one of about two million Vietnamese who died in our phase of the Indo-China war, or unless you were one of the half million Iraqis who died--and no one really seems to contest this figure, strangely enough--in the first five years of our embargo in the 1990s as a result of being deprived of food, medicine, and clean water. Or unless you are one of the 30,000 to 120,000 Iraqis--the figure is contested, but no one contests its lower bound--who have died in our current cloud-cuckooland war, or one of 2500 American soldiers who have also died--though George Bush was careful not to tell them or their loved ones the real reason the men in the White House felt it expedient for these soldiers to perish--in the service of reelecting George Bush and extending Republican power into an indefinite future.

Ah, but yes, in fairness, there are good things about America. Those are the reasons why I live here, and pay taxes, and in general obey the laws. Among those good things I include the openness, friendliness, kindness and generosity of many of its people. I include the stunning physical beauty of much of this country, especially the mountain West (which, again in fairness, I have to point out that Mr. Bush is destroying as fast as he can). There are still many people in America who actually believe, in a meaningful way--not just in the hollow, sham rhetoric of the Fourth of July--in the vision of human dignity and equality and justice expressed so well, albeit hypocritically, in the Declaration of Independence.

In fact I sometimes sentimentally think those people are the best people in the world. Unfortunately they do not hold political power in this country. They are not the people making the jingoist speeches, and appealing to the rawest and worst of human emotions to justify whatever wars and infamies the men in the Monkey Palace are presently hatching, or beating the drum for whatever social-Darwinist vision these same men have of a city on a hill where greed, self-interest, public and private looting, and the the corresponding and necessary diminishment of the human soul needed to make such a state of affairs happen becomes a given in public life, and doing so through propaganda technologies that Goebbels could only dream of.

So as usual, I'll pass on the Fourth of July. I'll go for a walk today, maybe take some pictures of birds or dragonflies, for a restorative reminder that there is a world not yet completely paved over by the mall-builders and the highway engineers. This evening I may read a book. My daughter wants me to read Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, which sounds complicated and ambivalent, maybe a good antidote to rhetorical certainties, which could of course include my own.

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