Annus horribilis. That’s what it’s been, everywhere really. And politically in the United States—is there any other way to think about it?
Patriotism—a particular bete noir with me—is all the rage these days. The Republicans are crying foul, charging that Democrats have co-opted classic Republican favorites: patriotism, American exceptionalism, optimism, chants of U.S.A! U.S.A!, the military. And the Dems are making hay while the “real” Republicans are stuck wallowing in the negativity of Trumpdom that they’ve brought upon themselves slowly but ever so surely over the past year (with the aid of our cowardly media, which are now frantically seeking redemption and pretending they weren’t enablers of the racism and the rest of the ugliness that have come to characterize American discourse).
Parenthetically, on one level, I am amused at the Republican carping because, of course, they don’t mention that along with the “morning in America” tropes and the muscular militarism that Democrats have “stolen” from them, Dems also embrace the anathemas: gender equality; marriage equality; racial equality; freedom of religion; a woman’s right to choose; vigorous opposition to racism, Islamophobia, and homophobia; due process; support for raising the minimum wage, ensuring the future of social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA; belief that climate change is real. To itemize some essentials of the Democratic agenda. There’s no Republican fare in those quarters. So, really, David Brooks and Ross Douthat (the resident Republicans on the NY Times editorial page), as well as the rest of their Republican comrades in arms, have it wrong. But it suits them to pretend that what may be a winning agenda for the Democrats is nothing but stolen property.
Back to patriotism. Coincidentally, just as the Democrats put their not-Republican version of patriotism front and center at the Democratic national convention last week, an Israeli academic friend, a political theorist, sent along the promised syllabus for his course on “the term patriotism in political thought.” I looked over the lengthy reading list and lighted immediately on an article by George Kateb, “Is Patriotism a Mistake?” George is a friend, an emeritus professor of political theory and one of the best thinkers I’ve ever encountered. So I knew where to start my reading (and to date that’s as far as I’ve gotten).
The article is a devastating, well-deserved critique of patriotism as (to put it most briefly) a “grave moral error” and a phenomenon inevitably in bed with militarism, its raison d’etre. George’s case struck a chord with me, since “patriotism,” as a rule, makes my skin crawl (no flag gene in our DNA, as my son, Hanan, once observed). Indeed, the only times I resonate with it, albeit temporarily, are when an alternative version (of some sort of “good” patriotism) is advanced. But we should never lose sight of the fact that militaristic patriotism is the default setting. And the tendency is always to revert to the default.
That’s why I could love Michelle Obama’s speech at the convention. And Barack Obama’s speech. I can swallow such occasional doses of the alternative variant—patriotism as our “better angels” and American exceptionalism as being better in how we comport ourselves as individuals and as a country. (But I know that story from the Jewish world in terms of the very problematic concept of the Chosen People. Some tout it, arguing that “we” Jews are enjoined to be better, a light unto the nations. But, in reality, those who get orgasmic over being the Chosen People are partisans of Jewish superiority. As far as I’m concerned, the Chosen People is a concept that long ago passed it expiration date.) But in today’s political world, one needs words to answer them, the Republicans, I know. Just so long as we don’t kid ourselves. American exceptionalism is really, at bottom, about being bigger and tougher in the sense of might makes right and doing whatever it is that we want at whatever harm to anyone or everyone else. It always comes back to that.
In this volatile annus horribilis, how curious is it that it took Ghazala and Khizr Khan to make a devastating dent in the nativist, Islamophobic Trump juggernaut and expose the emperor’s ugly nakedness? Admittedly, the success of this effort took an earnest embrace of patriotism and American exceptionalism, plus (inevitably) some embrace of the nobility of war. I hope it doesn’t turn around to bite us. But for the moment, this seems to be the only language that works. Still, it’s worrisome: who, after all, has ever succeeded in taming patriotism?