Monday, June 27, 2016

Liberals Are More Patriotic Than Conservatives

"Nationalism does nothing but teach you how to hate people that you've never met and all of a sudden you take pride in accomplishments you had no part in whatsoever...

"'Fuck the French! If we hadn't saved their ass in two World Wars they'd be speaking German right now!'

"Oh, was that us? That was us? That was me and you, Tommy? We saved the French? Jesus - I know I blacked out a little bit after that fourth shot of jagermeister last night, but I don't remember - I remember we went through the Wendy's drive-through... But I don't remember saving the French!

"I don't remember that at all. I went through the last ten calls on my cellphone and there's nothing incoming or outgoing to the French looking for muscle on a project. I checked my pants - it has no mud-stains on the knees from where we're garroting krauts in the trenches at Verdun.

"I think we didn't do anything but watch sports bloopers while we got hammered. I think we should shut the fuck up."

This, from Doug Stanhope back in 2007, is a rather good send-up of the American conservative nationalist. It's the same fraud that angers us, instinctively, when politicians say 'thoughts and prayers' and do nothing. Actions are important - and words without action is, rightfully, seen as worthless, hypocritical, or out-of-touch. Nationalistic statements like Tommy's above are of this worthless stripe.

No, Tommy, you don't get to take credit for the Wars, because you weren't there.

What has happened in America is that we've conflated 'nationalism' with 'tribalism'. It's the same irrationality as sports teams. Unless my blog has an unexpected fan-base you, gentle reader, have never won the World Series or the Stanley Cup or the Superbowl or any of that. You did nothing to make that victory happen. You did not train for years and make the game-winning play. Instead you just so happen to have a certain area code, and therefore identify, wrongfully, with a team that happens to play there.

Sports fans who like teams they have nothing to do with are more pure, to me. If a kid in Austin has a fondness for the Seattle Seahawks, just because she thinks they're a good sports franchise - I can get behind that. But decking yourself in the faux accomplishments of paid professionals, most of whom don't come from your town or are willing to abandon it for money, is not something to be proud of, in any rational sense. By all means do go - enjoy a baseball game, or a basketball game, or a rugby game, any game you like - that's great. But don't say "My team won!" Really? I was unaware of your managerial side-line as head coach for the Lakers. That must be exhausting on top of your commitments as a Guest Supervisor at Wal*Mart.

This sort of stuff is irrational. But it makes perfect tribal sense.  And we get this inculcated since childhood, for example with school sports. We train our kids to feel like the Hawks from area code 924 are so superior to the Crusaders from area code 922 - because in this area code a handful of preteens played basketball better this one time.

Which is crazy.

Tribalism is weird, and I sort of think as a nation we need to get past it. It's one of those deep-seated illogicalities which go typically unquestioned. If it remained sequestered to the multi-billion dollar world of sport I would be annoyed, but I wouldn't mind too much. Unfortunately, it has infected, and overwhelmed, our definition of 'nationalism' - and that I have a problem with.

Now, to be fair, nationalism is almost always geographically-bound. At its roots it is inherently arbitrary in that way. The exceptions to geographic sentiment are equally arbitrary based on things such as race or religion. This is the other edge of the sword we use to strike down racism. If the argument runs, contra racists, that you generalize negative stereotypes about a whole group of people, then you can't generalize positive stereotypes about them either, for the same reason. To do so would be equally ill-thought-out.

We are all individuals, and the fact that we are white, or Jewish, or what have you, cannot be accepted as a defining characteristic for our behaviors. Klansmen aren't racists because they're white - they're racists because they are assholes. We choose our actions, and, yes, for some people the constraints of society are significant based on these stereotypes. A 20-year old American white male has, because of racism, a very different life than a 20-year old American black male.

So this, racial, religious, or ethnic intolerance, is an example of how tribalism is insidious. Tribes once made sense, in the Olduvai gorge of Tanzania. But nowadays they are constructs - grounded on stereotypes that are irrational and harmful. And we need to apply this to geographic stereotypes as well. Just because I live in a certain place gives me no claims to it - positively or negatively.

I live, and grew up in, the Bay Area. I was born in San Francisco. But it's not my city. As Doug Stanhope might point out:

"Really? You built that bridge? I'm amazed. You see, I thought it was some guy back in the 1930s. Clearly either you've aged very well or my memory is rather foggy. And when were you going to tell me you had an engineering degree?"

San Francisco is not my city. I didn't lay the cable car tracks, or rebuild after the fire of 1906. I don't own the Giants or the Warriors franchises. No one elected me Mayor. On a whim my parents decided to live in the Bay Area when I was born. And if they'd chosen to live in say, Westport, CT instead that wouldn't be my city either.


Unlike most countries, America actually is fairly unique, in how we got here. We have three basic stories in the United States - the Native American, the slave, and the immigrant. Those are your only options. Other countries have these options, as well - Brazil, for example. But when you consider the demographics of Brazil, most of the immigrants, of Portuguese extraction, did their colonizing around five hundred years ago. In the US our immigrant story is very long and complicated, and is seen as an essential characteristic of our nation. Once we'd slaughtered and stole the swath of continent from the English colonies to Spanish New Spain, we kept letting people in. We kept encouraging immigrants to arrive and populate this new empire. We borrowed and embraced a whole mishmash of cultural ephemera, ideas, language, and bric-a-brac.

From the Germans we got delis, and "American" style beer. From the Italians, famously, we developed pizza, listed by many Americans as their favorite food, and got a taste for pasta. Even the word 'cookie' comes from the Dutch, who weren't exactly a big part of the story, yet historians also believe it was a Dutch immigrant, Louis Lassen, who invented the hamburger. Nowadays in any supermarket you would expect to find "fresh" sushi and no town is complete without Chinese take-out. And what late-night craving can't be satisfied with a tasty burrito (a dish developed by Mexican immigrants not in Mexico, but in California's Central Valley)?

We tell our college students to get by on ramen, watch classic American films about the mafia, and, once again from the Dutch, lift a groundhog out of a hole to determine the weather. (Apparently, in Europe they used a badger, which seems far riskier. Badgers do not like to be poked, I am told.) Christmas wreaths come to us from the Irish, as do jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween. MadTV does sketches about a student who is just an "Average Asian" and commercials advertise southern, black, soul food to predominately white audiences.

Immigration is who we are. But with this new tribalist approach to nationalism there's need of a reckoning.

Nationalism's definition, pretty universally, includes a shared, semi-mythic, historical past. And we've got this down pat, from Disney's "Pocahontas" to Broadway's "Hamilton" we are really good mythologizing and celebrating our shared cultural past. No American is alive today who fought in the Civil War, but standing in the presence of the Lincoln Memorial has become cinematic shorthand for weighing heavy decisions. Cultural inheritance, and a mythic past, we can check off the list.

...Until you hit the 1950s. That's when the shared cultural past splits, and it has never really come together since. I began to notice this as an American History teacher. Consider the difference between how we portray the 1930s to the 1950s: When talking about the 30s the tone is compassionate and respectful of the sub-groups of Americans. Textbooks take a plaintive tone regarding tenements in New York, as well as an approving commentary on the Harlem Renaissance. The plight of the Okies fleeing the dustbowl is rendered empathetically. Textbooks and curricula render a respectful tribute to minority cultures and movements up through the War.

But the 1950s are different. Instead of multiple stories of how Americans lived during this period there is, instead, a debate on what is "real" America - a debate that continues to this day. Is it the suburban, " Mad Men", white, view complete with atomic family? That certainly wasn't the America Martin Luther King lived in. Or Allen Ginsburg.

The problem with the 1950s was that the atomic family was the culmination of an ideal - an ideal that had been inherited from hundreds of years of European-American culture, norms, and traditions. The goal had been, at least since the Enlightenment, to have enough money for a nice house, not too much work, a family, and good food on the table. The 1950s was the middle class ambition: satisfied. Except, of course, for African Americans. Hispanic Americans. Asian Americans. Native Americans, Gay Americans...

Demographically, when Truman was President for the 1950 census, there were 151 million Americans. 134 million of those were white. Only 10% of America was categorized (by the census takers as opposed to the self-identification of those being counted) as black. (Still, in America today, as of the 2010 census only 12% of Americans are black.)

We've not yet decided the victors of the culture wars that began with the end of segregation. I mean, after all, some states are still debating what to do about Confederate flags, and whether the Black Lives Matter movement is "too radical". Lats time I checked, Huey P. Newton hasn't appeared on a postage stamp.

Do we celebrate the George Wallaces or the Jack Kerouacs? The Joe McCarthys or the Grateful Dead? These are not hyperbolic - twenty percent of Donald Trump primary voters in South Carolina think slavery shouldn't have been abolished, and Trump himself took lessons from the noxious Roy Cohn, who served as McCarthy's main legal mind. Meanwhile President Obama grew up in Hawaii and did inhale. The contrast is pretty stark, and in some sense is the inheritance of the Supreme Court.

From 1953-1969 Earl Warren was Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. His court determined the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision helping end segregation, established 'one man one vote' during the early 60s, got rid of mandatory school prayer, determined that there is a right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut, and saw the appointment of Thurgood Marshall.

Then, from 1969 to 1986, we hard Warren Burger, who, despite certain conservative strains, decided that the New York Times could publish the Pentagon Papers, favored abortion rights 7-2 in Roe .v Wade, said that Nixon's executive privilege does not extend to felonies, upheld affirmative action practices, and saw the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor.

I could have chosen other examples - economic, military, social - from which to draw out the distinctions. But the court cases are so often cited in our social debates it seemed apropos. From 1953 until 1986 we had liberal justices making huge gains for social and civil rights. From 1986 to the present, under the Rehnquist and Roberts courts, we've had the reversal of that trend.

The culture wars playing out since the 1950s are our inheritance. So, by definition, it is harder to make a nationalist semi-mythical past if the recent past is a story of cultural divide int he wake of racial integration.


"Make America Great Again" is a tribalist-nationalist approach to our problems. It is ignorant, and exclusive - obviously coded language. But for some time now conservatives, selling the middle-class achievements of white Americans from the segregated 50s, have laid claim to nationalism, and by extension patriotism, as theirs.

We disagree on nationalism and patriotism in the United States, and there are two flavors to choose:

1) Tribal-conservative. Everything Stanhope was making fun of. We're great because we're mainly white and Christian. We're great because of what our ancestors did. It's a backwards system - literally looking over your shoulder to that semi-mythic past - when white middle class dreams were realized - and taking credit for it. It is irrational and divisive.

2) Liberal nationalism. But what is liberal nationalism?

Liberals are the true nationalists, and it goes back to our unique immigrant histories. More so - because liberals also embrace our other two stories, those of the Native Americans and the narratives of a population enslaved. Liberals are the big-tent people, a coalition of people working together to make America great tomorrow. And that tomorrow won't look like yesterday. Most isn't good enough - we need to look forward to a time when all Americans have equal opportunities, not glory in the past when, numerically, most did - based on race, sex, and other arbitrary factors.

Liberals want equal opportunities so that your patriotic pride can be from your own accomplishments, not those of your great-grandfather. Everyone needs to have a say in our country, because every voice matters, and we all have certain rights, like voting, that cannot be denied. Liberals are more nationalist than conservatives, because liberals value the stories and worth of all Americans - not just whites, or Christians, or certain geographic groups. Southern African Americans and Western Asian Americans and Southwestern Hispanics and New England Whites - we can all come together under the very basic adoption of human dignity as a guiding principle.

Isn't it sort of self-evident that the group who acknowledges the potential worth of the largest group of Americans is, in the true sense, the most nationalist?

The conservatives say that liberals are hypocrites because they don't respect the opinions and statements made by conservatives, so where's the inclusiveness? But this is a false paradox - liberals are united by a pledge to human dignity and the worth of all American narratives. By rejecting those who reject this premise there is no hypocrisy, it is merely a double negative: we don't accept intolerance, but that does not make us intolerant.

It is one of the great failings of the Democratic Party, supposedly representing the liberals, not to play offense on this. It is insufficient to say we are the Americans who accept the broadest, and therefore most representative, views of this nation. They need to start pointing out that tribalism and nationalism are not the same - and the conflation of the two is particularly dangerous in an egalitarian and complex rights-based country like the Unite States. They need to say that making America great again is to return to a time when sodomy was outlawed, Jews couldn't buy houses in certain neighborhoods, women didn't have have many reproductive rights, and blacks couldn't drink at the same water fountains.

Patriotism - the emotions aroused from one's national homeland - needs to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. Exclusive emotions are dangerous, as history has shown - and fundamentally irrational. Liberals, instead, need to be recognized the real nationalistic patriots - with inclusive sentiment prevailing over the tribalists like Trump.

No comments: