pseudopodium
. . . patriotism

. . .

This past week, Tom Parmenter's far-too-sporadic emailzine Desperado issued an appropriate response to the "respect the US flag" constitutional amendment that's being cheered on through our do-nothing-and-proud-of-it Congress. One might think that our politicians' patriotism would be better expressed by eliminating tax shelters and offshore labor. But no, the greenback remains the most furiously guarded symbol of their country.

My reaction to flag-hagiographers is even more unmixed than Tom's, possibly because pretty much the only use I've seen the flag get put to is as a quick hiding place. I'm so glad I'm living in the USA because of the Bill of Rights, the unusually (if still insufficiently) permeable class system, and the achievements they've made possible. Forcing children to take daily oaths of allegiance to a piece of cloth doesn't seem so useful; it's also hard to see what benefits can be derived by the flag-hags' getting their red-white-and-blue panties in a twist over furriners' bonfires. The most pleasant association the flag has for me is as verifier of post office or embassy.

A couple of months ago, I read James Branch Cabell's These Restless Heads, which spends quite a few pages observing the USA flag at eye level from a high-placed summer cottage:

I note that those seven red stripes and those six white stripes are so alternated as to suggest the uniform of a convict.... That blue canton I know to contain some and forty stars; but for seven whole years I have tried without success to count them.... It may well reek with irreligion, in that it boldly attempts to improve upon the celestial plan by arranging its own stars in six parallel rows.... I recollect, in the nick of time, that those some and forty white pentangles were borrowed from the Washington coat-of-arms, in which they did not represent stars but the rowels of spurs.....

The patriot everywhere, it may be observed, remains always exceedingly careful lest his country's banner become besmirched by any touch of that bloody sponge which is his brain....

For any of antiquity's heroic standards a liquescent barber's pole seems a poor substitute.... Red-and-white-striped peppermint candy is a spectacle which, in itself, connotes rather less of high-mindedness than of an over-cloying and sticky saccharinity; and I imagine that in this aspect it may rhetorically mislead a great many patriotic orators. I wish, in fine, that both the flag and I were somewhat different looking.

. . .

 
Hammett
Dashiell Hammett: tubercular veteran of two world wars, political target
I started thinking about the following topic while reading Dashiell Hammett's letters a month or two ago, back when I was one of the only people I knew who would've described themselves as "patriotic."

Nowadays there's a lot more of that going around, but it still seems worth bringing up. Flag-waving (link via Electrolite) is an easy and transient exercise; worthier of scrutiny are less strictly symbolic acts, such as legislation. Our current national leaders have a history of opportunism, and they've been handed a splendid opportunity.

+ + +

No one's really bothered to pick it up yet, but over the past two decades, right-wing Republicans have had to discard what used to be one of their favorite political weapons: patriotism. (A narrow form of xenophobia is still wielded in especially racist states such as California, but America, being a nation of immigrants, doesn't lend itself to ethnically-based nationalism.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Republicans were able to push the patriotism button pretty heavily. Left-of-liberals muddied domestic waters by dopey idealization of the Soviet Union or China, southern Democrats still saluted nothing but Dixie, and opposition to government involvement in Vietnam easily slued into attacks on the military itself.

Well, there are essentially no more left-of-liberals, no one outside the executive suite has much good to say for China, the military budget has been devoted to frivolous weapons research while ignoring personnel, and the dominant wing of the Republican party doesn't have a red, white, and blue pot to piss in.

Reaganesque anti-federal propaganda brought a plague of do-nothings who move into political office on corporate support, interfere with or dismantle useful services, re-route tax money to corporations, and then move back into cushy corporate positions. (I might not exactly enjoy the thought of sewage, but that doesn't make me want to hire a high-priced plumber to remove all the pipes.) Their allegiances are pledged to two special interest groups:

  1. Global corporations, who are dedicated by law to the profits of their shareholders and by inclination to the financial security of their upper management. Legally speaking, nothing else can be allowed to take precedence. A corporation cannot afford to instead emphasize, for example, scrupulous service -- which is why, for example, you wouldn't want one to be responsible for your health care. And certainly it can't afford to consider the good of the nation. That's why it's global, right? Corporations maximize profits by taking jobs away from American citizens and by taking taxes away from the American government. They have no interest in improving American life or in defending American freedoms.

  2. Fundamentalist demagogues, who, like fundamentalist demagogues elsewhere in the world, are avowed enemies of the secular democracy set up by the Constitution of the United States and avowed proponents of its replacement by rule of their interpretation of their sacred texts. Frequently supporters of domestic terrorism (although I assume Ashcroft is trying to ensure that bombing birth control clinics and murdering doctors won't fall under his expanded definition of the term), they're one step away from being traitors, and often seem none too particular about that step.
Republican leaders idealize only (their) money and (their) church. They have no workable concept of country.

"Big-spending" "bleeding-heart" liberals, by definition, believe that the American system of government is good and capable, that the American people are worthy of defense and respect, and that America can be both a haven and a promise of limitless possibilities. That gives them access to a heap of rhetorical tools that've proven very useful in the past, and which might as well get used.

. . .

Fleet's In

 
"In the beginning of our government we were willing to introduce the least coercion possible on the will of the citizen. Hence a system of military duty was established too indulgent to his indolence. This [War of 1812] is the first opportunity we have had of trying it, and it has completely failed...."
I'm a liberal who wants a big fat federal government that gives big fat services to its citizens and rewarding employment to the citizens who staff those service industries -- one such service industry being the military. I respect the pacifists I've known infinitely more than the warmongers I've known, but abolishing the armed forces didn't work so well for Jefferson and Madison.

My opinion is biased by personal experience as well as historical evidence, since my father, my mother, and my brother are all Navy veterans. Our education, our excellent health care, and our eventual move to the middle class of the proletariat have all been funded by the Navy. Although I'm the odd civilian out -- it always being clear enough that my tour of duty would be divided between sick bay and the brig -- I'm grateful to the Navy. I simply wish more Americans had similar access to federally aided education, health care, and class mobility.

As you might imagine, should you feel up to imagining the feelings of someone who writes a weblog, I'm occasionally irritated by the presumptions of the fine young people who've surrounded me in Cambridge and San Francisco and Berkeley. If our armed forces have generally been deployed to bolster corporate profits -- well, what hasn't generally been deployed in that never-ending chore? including mass media, fast food restaurants, universities, computer programming, and much more that fine young people have no trouble sucking down? That happens to be the kind of history we're stuck in.

More often, though, I'm angered and frightened by what's behind their presumptions.

 
"... you'd think they'd treat our forces like human beings."
"That would be 'no'."

I blame the Vietnam War. That's safe enough; nobody likes the Vietnam War.

Talk about being "pro-military" or "anti-military" is as nonsensical (and common) as talk about being "pro-economy" or "anti-economy." There are at least two sides to an economy -- worker security and big business profits -- with party lines drawn between them. Just as clearly, there have always been at least two sides to the American military: the armed forces themselves and the profiteers who leech from them.

The leaders of the Republican Party have never been subtle (in their actions, anyway) about which of those sides concerns them. They were against the GI Bill as a democratizing force and they're certainly against bringing anything like it back. On the other hand, no pork barrel sweats more fat than military contracts: virtually no competition; virtually no punitive action for fraud; a captive audience of "consumers" whose whistleblowing can be stopped by direct order....

 
"In 1976, the senior military officers he polled were one-third Republican. Today, it's two-thirds. Liberals have all but evaporated. You go from a conservative-to-liberal ratio among senior ranks of 4-to-1 in 1976 to a ratio of 23-to-1 in 1996.... I was out in California recently, and a Marine told me that the commanding officer of his unit would play Rush Limbaugh's show over the unit's loudspeakers so everybody could listen to it while they worked."
By conflating those two sides into "the military," we've handed the armed forces over to politicians whose chief concern is profiteering, never more openly than in the current administration. "A strong military," "the military budget," "military spending" -- all these terms bandied about by the news media refer to transfer of money from taxpayers to the corporate friends of the Party. No distinction is made and thus no regard need be given to military personnel or national security -- as was made grotesquely apparent after last September's low-tech hijackings, when Bush claimed that the Star Wars pork fest was now more essential than ever.

Meanwhile, the left's withdrawal from and frequent vilification of "the military" has slaked the thirsty ghost of Joe McCarthy with sweet victory: the United States officer corps now consists overwhelmingly of right-wing extremists. Given the nature of the military hierarchy, once such a trend is in place, it's almost impossible to undo.

Except maybe through a resurgence of patriotism or a draft or whatnot....

. . .

Movie Mop-Up: Holes

Despite my adherence to movie-is-a-movie book-is-a-book orthodoxy, what a pleasure, after suffering through a long run of incoherent film-schooled star-indulgent crap, to encounter a script so devoted to its source novel.

Oh, the staging of the script had its discords, starting with the obtrusive music. The cast was charming, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for the overgrown hulk somewhere who'd been denied his big break when apish Stanley Yelnats was assigned to a more conventional willowy teenager. And although the desert made convincing desert, standard-issue F/X exaggerated the gruelling trial-by-mountain into Schwarzenegger fantasyland.

But Louis Sachar's transplanted machinery carried on, doing its job: the low contrivance of melodrama built up and extended, gear by chute by trip-board by flywheel, until it became the high artifice of comedy. It's a practical, if currently neglected, aspect of information theory that, while a little complexity creates suspense, increased complexity either collapses into noise or crystallizes into laughter.

Our anxiety and our relief, being pure products of storytelling technique, float free, ready to attach to whatever sentiment we find close at hand. In a screwball comedy, we associate them with romance, which is why screwball comedies are traditional first-date films and the Three Stooges aren't. Holes, on the other hand, induced in me a strong, and more than slightly disconcerting, upflux of patriotism, and I left the theater in as flag-waving a mood as I've felt in some time.

My reaction isn't easy to explain. It's true that Sachar's elaborate multi-generational farce pivots on important aspects of American history, but lynchings, anti-immigrant prejudice, land barons, and chain gangs make weak propaganda. Maybe there's a bit of Stockholm Syndrome here: America caused the story's anxiety, and so I associated America with the story's relief. After all, I'd be at least as hard-pressed to find positive aspects of sexual love in His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby.

Maybe by interlocking our national horrors with the comic survival of individuals, the movie hit at the heart of the particular sort of patriotism I call my own: a love of what Americans have managed to achieve despite all the crap they've gone through; a hope that sheer mobility is enough to release children from the chains and curses of their parents; a fractured fairy tale of chance recombination leading to something better than hostility unto the final generation.

At the very least, it might be worth trying out as a replacement for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on the Fourth of July.

. . .

An honest candidacy

Mitt Romney's every utterance was either lying or deluded. Yet in a sense he was the least deceitful presidential nominee of my lifetime: he truly represented his party's interests. No fake folksiness; no fake patriotism; no fake rage or compassion or erudition. Romney is a selfish, smug, willfully ignorant, well-maintained son of wealth who's devoted his life to pure consumption. He's the post-1980 equivalent of a fat guy in waistcoat, monocle, and top hat. For once, the captain played the figurehead and the face played the mask.

And so gullibility can't be what's the matter with Kansas (60%), Alabama (61%), Idaho (65%), Oklahoma (67%), or Wyoming (69%). At least fifty-seven million American voters genuinely admire plutocrats more than teachers, scholars, doctors, nurses, lawyers, or civil servants. They don't have to be tricked into abjection. They like it.

Responses

Josh Lukin:

Well, there's a possibility of liking abjection for the same reason Cocksucker likes it: one doesn't see any credible alternatives that are better. I mean, I don't personally believe that Rupert Murdoch is Hogg, but it's a coherent hypothesis.
Not so much genuinely admire more than, as despise and resent less

. . .

Bye, 2016; so long, all that

I loved my country my United States, headed by a well-funded and unabashedly ambitious federal government I loved my country about as much as any halfway sane person could love an unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstraction. Which seems only natural since it had rescued, fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, and boosted me and my brother after having rescued and supported our parents.

Of course (being halfway sane) I knew big government was frequently inept, hypocritical, and unjust to the point of murder. But it was also the only rival to and our only defense against the unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstractions of big business and big religion, both of which were at least as frequently inept, hypocritical, unjust, and murderous. And where big businesses and big churches could cheat, lie, embezzle, extort, and rape with virtual impunity, big government's pretense of public service left its miscreants nominally (and therefore sometimes actually) susceptible to public inspection and public penalty.

Even while I and my brother were swaddled by socialism, big business and big religion began negotiating an unholy alliance. As of the 1980 election, its success was no longer deniable. But I kept a sullen, resentful faith. My country had absorbed such body blows before and re-righted itself. Weren't the allegiances of evangelical with Jew around Zionism, and evangelical with Catholic around abortion, and church with plutocracy around ignorance inherently unstable?

After the 2000 election, "my country" suddenly looked less like world-as-is and more like a vulnerable blip. 2001 confirmed its vulnerability; the 2004 election guaranteed its loss. Seventy years, approximately the lifespan of the Third Republic.

You know how these things go, though. We understand our loved ones will die, and yet the day finds us unprepared. We understand that gambling is lucrative business; we noticed the casino staff repeatedly extract ever larger winnings and repeatedly produce ever colder decks. And yet when we blankly watch our chips, checks, bonds, mortgage, and IOUs squeegeed dry across the table, it's a shock.

A shock but no surprise.1 No need to waste weeks arguing over how we might have played that last card better. No infallibly winning card was left in this particular game. If we hadn't lost this deal, we would have lost the next one.

At least our razed territory holds plenty of company. Like successful totalitarians of the past, our new leaders didn't let themselves be distracted by the unpopularity of their goals; instead they focused on gaining power by any means at hand, and then guaranteeing continued power by any means at hand. This they interpret as a heroic win against overwhelmingly unfair odds by dint of their superior brilliance and talent.

They've recently attempted to adapt their self-justifications for a wider audience with spins like "saving our country from urban scum" or "defending America against California" or simply "making those fuckers squirm." And of course, as soon as their eminent domain's established they begin demolishing anything in the path of the propaganda superhighway notably the distasteful slums of reality-based journalism, education, and research. But for a brief while yet, our rulers remain a lunatic fringe who defy majority opinion on almost every policy, and we retain some belief that a democracy should at least vaguely represent its people. History suggests that's common ground enough to push from.

1   Well, one surprise, at least for me. I never anticipated Vladimir Putin as leader of a new Axis. Awfully exceptionalist of me. After "patriotism" lost any connotation of service or sacrifice (even the trivial financial sacrifice of taxes), and frankly selfish plutocrats could reach office without need of political stand-ins, who better to inspire them than the leading exponent of the globalized shakedown state? And whereas Stalin's, Hitler's, and Mussolini's attempts at foreign influence relied on native "thought-leaders" who never quite met spec, now misinformation and propaganda, like every other form of publishing, can bypass the middleman (unless, of course, the middleman is a national firewall), and Russia's greatest export, the bot-troll cyborg, can work from the comfort of home.

Responses

Thanks, Bo Diddley.

 

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