Friday, August 08, 2008

Everything They Learned About Patriotism They Learned in Grammar School

So, the other day John Quinn from Parma, Ohio tried to show up Barack Obama by interrupting a policy speech with the Pledge of Allegiance. (h/t Andrew Sullivan and the Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Photographer insists on Pledge of Allegiance before Obama rally












Obama's aplomb is remarkable, and it occurs to me that being able to handle irrational and overwrought people is an important presidential skill. But what's interesting is that the heckler, who identified himself as "John Q. Public," feels that he has scored a major triumph, and continues to admonish the reporters taking his statement afterward:

You all learned the Pledge of Allegiance in first grade ... all right? Your Senator ... your Governor ... nobody started this town hall meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States of America (sic)? You gotta be serious! Somebody shoulda did that. Don't disrespect that flag!
Making fun of this poor man would be easy, useless, and cruel. I'm sure cable news has already been doing it for hours. And obviously there's a difference between the the leadership of the Republican party and a guy who disrupts public meetings. But this is the difference:

The Republican party only makes the talking points up. Poor Quinn takes them seriously.

What clearly upsets Quinn is a lack of patriotic ritual, which he identifies as patriotism. The flag itself deserves respect. But one can honor a flag with words and dishonor everything that flag stands for. That might be the epitome of Bush conservatism: shred the Bill of Rights but honor the flag.

It reminds me of certain ritualistic or pietistic approaches to religion, where ceremonies and verbal formulas take the place of the actual ethical belief system. It's far, far harder to live a life of Christian kindness, forgiveness, and humility than it is to, say, recite a whole lot of prayers and have a good attendance record at services. (The distance between the two efforts is something like the difference between winning the Olympic Marathon and watching the Olympic Marathon on TV; the latter might or might not be tedious, but you won't strain anything.) There's nothing wrong with these ceremonies and formulas themselves (although Jesus himself vigorously disagreed); every faith has them. The problem lies in treating them as important in themselves rather than as mere reminders. Saying the rosary after looting a charitable foundation is grotesque; singing "The Star Spangled Banner" while the separation of powers erodes is no achievement.

The conservative political strategies of recent years have shamelessly peddled the reduction of both faith and patriotism to a series of effortless gestures. Anyone can wear a flag pin; anyone can stand for the national anthem. It's appealing, because it allows people to feel like patriots without sacrifice. Everything John Quinn Public needs to do to feel like a patriot, he quite literally learned in grade school. No more effort is required to be "patriotic" in this way than was required when you were six. No more will be asked of you, except perhaps to scold and shame people who don't participate in the simple rituals. (Complaining about who does and doesn't wear a flag pin is like complaining about whether the nurses in the charity hospital wear personal crucifixes or not.)

The conservatives, to their shame, have been selling "patriotism" as a fashion choice, although the best of them know better. And they have set the bar for patriotism at a child's height. The questions of how we honor America, and how we commit to the American experiment, are far more difficult and complicated. It's time to make this election about what patriotism really is.

1 comment:

John Malone said...

Bravo! Amen to that! Great post.

Now...how to reduce all that to a bumper sticker?