I was driving down the highway yesterday, and I noticed that the car ahead of me had a small American flag decal on its trunk. It got me to thinking about how I’ve never displayed a flag on my car or my home, except for a small one on my porch on the very first Fourth of July after 9/11. I’ve never been one to wear T-shirts with slogans, or campaign buttons, or any of those sorts of public declarations of self and/or belief. I’m just a very private person (the apple in front of the face, for example).
But I clearly remember that huge proliferation of flags post 9/11. Flags on cars, on homes, pinned to lapels–everywhere one looked, so many more than ever before. There were, of course, those who carped about it (see this for a typical example). Too nationalistic. Too jingoistic. But I rather liked it–even though at the time I was still an unreconstructed liberal. It gave me a feeling of comfort and continuity. We might be down, but we weren’t out yet.
For many days after 9/11 I found myself going to the ocean and sitting on the rocks, watching the ubiquitous commercial fishing boats and ferries go by. Everyone remembers that blue blue sky of 9/11, but I don’t know how many recall that it stayed that way for some time afterwards. The weather was spectacular, almost eerie in its beauty, and very serene, although I felt anything but. At the ocean, I would ordinarily see airplanes on a regular basis–but those days, the almost supernaturally blue skies were very, very quiet.
I thought about many things as I sat there. I believed another large attack was imminent, maybe many attacks. I had no idea what could ever prevent this from happening. I thought about George Bush being President, and at the time the thought did not fill me with confidence, but rather with dread. Snatches of poems and songs would wander in and out of my head, in that repetitive way they often do. One was the “Star-Spangled Banner”–all those flags brought it to mind, I suppose.
I’d known the words to that song for close to fifty years, and even had to learn about Francis Scott Key and the circumstances under which he wrote them. But I never really thought much about those words. It was just a song that was difficult to sing, and not as pretty as America the Beautiful or God Bless America (the latter, in those very un-PC days of my youth, we used to sing as we marched out of assembly).
The whole first stanza of the national anthem is a protracted version of a question: does the American flag still wave over the fort? Has the US been successful in the battle? As a child, the answer seemed to me to have been a foregone conclusion–of course it waved, of course the US prevailed in the battle; how could it be otherwise? America rah-rah. America always was the winner. Even our withdrawal from Vietnam, so many years later, seemed to me to be an act of choice. Our very existence as a nation had never for a moment felt threatened.
The only threat I’d ever faced to this country was the nightmarish threat of nuclear war. But that seemed more a threat to the entire planet, to humankind itself, rather than to this country specifically. And so I never really heard or felt the vulnerability and fear expressed in Key’s question, which he asked during the War of 1812, so shortly after the birth of the country itself: does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
But now I heard his doubt, and I felt it, too. I saw quite suddenly that there was no “given” in the existence of this country–its continuance, and its preciousness, began to seem to me to be as important and as precarious as they must have seemed to Key during that night in 1814.
And then other memorized writings came to me as well–the Gettysburg Address, whose words those crabby old teachers of mine had made us memorize in their entirety: and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Here it was again, the sense of the nation as an experiment in democracy and freedom, and inherently special but vulnerable to destruction, an idea I had never until that moment grasped. But now I did, on a visceral level.
Another school memory of long ago was the story “The Man Without a Country.” It used to be standard reading matter for seventh graders. In fact, it was the first “real” book–as opposed to those tedious Dick and Jane readers–that I ever was assigned to read in school. As such it was exciting, since it dealt with an actual story with some actual drama to it. It struck me as terribly sad–and unfair, too–that Philip Nolan was forced to wander the world, exiled, for one moment of cursing the United States. “The Man Without a Country” was the sort of paean to patriotism that probably would never be assigned nowadays to students.
Patriotism has gotten a very bad name during the last few decades. I think part of this feeling began (at least in this country), like so many things, with the Vietnam era. But patriotism and nationalism seem to have been rejected by a large segment of Europeans even earlier, as a result of the devastation both sentiments were seen to have wrought during WWI and WWII. Of course, WWII in Europe was a result mainly of German nationalism run amok, but it seemed to have given nationalism as a whole a very bad name.
Here’s author Thomas Mann on the subject, writing in 1947 in the introduction to the American edition of Herman Hesse’s Demian:
If today, when national individualism lies dying, when no single problem can any longer be solved from a purely national point of view, when everything connected with the “fatherland” has become stifling provincialism and no spirit that does not represent the European tradition as a whole any longer merits consideration…”
A strong statement of the post-WWII idea of nationalism as a dangerous force, mercifully dead or dying, to be replaced (hopefully) by a pan-national (or, rather, anational) Europeanism. Mann was a German exile from his own country, who had learned to his bitter regret the excesses to which unbridled and amoral nationalism can lead. His was an understandable and common response, one that helped lead to the formation of the EU. The nationalism of the US is seen by those who agree with him as a relic of those dangerous days of nationalism gone mad without any curb of morality or consideration for others.
But the pendulum is swinging back. The US is not Nazi Germany, however much the far left may try to make that analogy. And, in fact, that is one of the reasons they try so hard to make that particular analogy–because Nazi Germany is one of the very best examples of the dangers of unbridled and amoral nationalism.
But, on this Memorial Day, I want to say there’s a place for nationalism, and for love of country. Not a nationalism that ignores morality, but one that embraces it and strives for it, keeping in mind that–human nature being what it is–no nation on earth can be perfect or anywhere near perfect. The US is far from perfect, but it is a good country nevertheless, striving to be better.
So, I’ll echo the verse that figured so prominently in “The Man Without a Country,” and say (corny, but true): this is my own, my native land. And I’ll also echo Francis Scott Key and add: the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.