The Proud Duck
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Via Lileks, this gem from the inimitable (thankfully) LA Times columnist Joel Stein, who completely freaked out when a local real estate broker stuck a flag in his lawn:
So the reason I didn't want to put a flag outside wasn't because I disapprove of our international policies. It was because I didn't want to associate myself with the other people who put them up, and with their unquestioning, tribal, us-versus-them, arrogant mentality. Though I love being American, I don't want to proclaim it as the sole basis of my identity.
As long as we're speaking of arrogance, let's review: Joel thinks the other people (not "some") who put up flags must have an unquestioning, tribal, us-versus-them, arrogant mentality.
This really shouldn't need much of a response, but since Mr. Stein gets paid to write a column at a major, if declining, newspaper, and since the Times does exercise some selection in deciding who to hire, there could conceivably be some people who are even thicker than he is. So here goes: It's possible to love being American without making it the "sole basis" of one's identity. I am a member of a family, of a church, and of a country, among many memberships of which I am proud. To paraphrase a better wordsmith than I am, it is altogether fitting and proper that I should be so. Something about "the mystic chords of memory, stretching back to every hearth and patriot grave" comes to mind.
All those loyalties make up parts of my identity. Does that make me "tribal"? I guess it does, to some point. "Breathes there the man with soul so dead/Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land?" My ultimate loyalty is to what is right, but I'm not an island. I owe duties of loyalty to those closest to me. I believe that this means that when the interests of, say, a family member and a stranger honestly conflict, or those of my country and another, and the moral equities are otherwise equal or too close to call (that is, when it's not a case of one being clearly in the wrong), I should favor my family member or my country over the stranger.
This may be a little too sophisticated for the self-anointed sophisticates to comprehend. I am not saying "my country, right or wrong." I'm saying that in a close case, where reasonable arguments can be made by both sides, the side I should pick is the side closest to me.
Loyalty and patriotism aren't just about picking sides, either. It's plenty possible to fly the flag without making any comparisons with other countries. We can love freedom and other good things both in the abstract, and as they are expressed in our country's heritage. As an analogy, I love kindness and humor and beauty and self-sacrifice both in the abstract, and (more thoroughly) as my wife Danielle exemplifies them. Loving those qualities in her doesn't mean I can't also be moved when they appear in others, which may be why I find myself moved not only by genuine expressions of American patriotism, but also by the honest sentiment of foreign patriots for good things as they are expressed in their countries. The French generally annoy me, but danged if I don't like Smetana's "Ma Vlast" cycle, or the scene in "Casablanca" when Victor Lazlo has the band play "La Marseillaise," both of which appeal precisely because they are expressions of patriotism.
(Note to Danielle: This does not mean I go out of my way to appreciate beauty, etc. in other people than her. Really. Not even at the beach.)
I would imagine that most people who fly the flag would agree, if it occurred to them to analyze the reasons they do the things that come naturally to them. I have rarely encountered an actual specimen of the kind of mindless nationalist Joel Stein seems to think we all are. I have, however, encountered one whole lot of Joel Steins.
Joel Stein is tribal, too. To a great extent, he's basing his identity upon what he's not: He's not a flag-waver, with all the simplistic arrogance that supposedly entails. The irony of his criticizing an "us-versus-them" mentality in an argument that specifically defines himself as opposing another group is something that may not entirely escape him: "Like everyone else, I'm just blindly trying to fit in with my clique." I just wonder if all the other "cliques" have such a cardboard impression of the others.