It has been an interesting week on Blogcritics. Having never been an American, or ever had the chance to check out the soil, I have taken to watching the celebrations unfold by browsing patriotic posts and listening to Bruce Shapiro talk to Philip Adams on Late Night Live.
My general finding was that Americans love their country more because it's where they live than any logical conclusion on their part, and I also found a few key discourses that might be worthy of further study. These discourses were America as Hero, America as Symbol, and America as a People.
Here are some highlights from what local Blogcritics have had to say this week:
Take a break from your seething indignity and anger toward the country that educated you, fed you, and allowed you unsurpassed freedoms to be and think as you like. Ask yourself what you love about America — if anything — and maybe, even if for only one day, you will feel grateful.
— Mark Edward Manning, 4 July 06
Unlike previous world powers, America has been a benevolent ruler, from which the rest of the world has greatly benefited. While illiberals and Europeans will scoff at this notion, their position is hard to defend. Most of the democratized world — and much of the non-democratized world — functions today because the US enables —or enabled — them to do so. Apparently the Europeans have forgotten that it was US policy that rescued them from being relegated to the dark ages after the Great Wars.
— Dr Politico, 3 July 06
Notice how both of these posts act on the defensive? We get a distinct lack of concrete discussion because they don't actually discuss real criticisms in detail, and throughout the majority of these posts we see boasting without any real data to compare:
- Manning says that the United States is at the forefront of technological change, yet my understanding is that consumerism has driven Japan to much faster uptakes.
- Dr. Politico actually refers to America as a benevolent ruler, which seems like praise of hegemony, while citing how America has come to the rescue. And the United States is hardly unique in its ability in its ability to save the day.
And this brings us to our first of the Patriotic discourses: America as Hero.
One finds this discourse in the mantra of “support the troops” which deflects criticism away from Iraq, in the anti-communist rhetoric that was used against the anti-war movement during the cold war, and even, as noted by Robert Manne in the March 06 edition of The Monthly, in the way John Howard has repeatedly sacrificed Australia's interests in trade talks.
The truths about this approach are rather self-evident. One cannot presume that the United States government acts in the interests of anyone other than its own, and that goes for any country. But more than that, this particular discourse is unhelpful because it does not justify itself sufficiently. American interests are the right ones because…?
Often, whenever I see this approach questioned, I hear a few comments on what is right about America, and we end up in a cyclic argument of “this is right because it is.” Rather dangerous idea when you think about it.
Let's take a look at a few more comments:
The people of a free country have the right to do and say all sorts of awful things that might be considered offensive in polite society, as long as they do not violate anybody else's rights in doing so.
— Margaret Romao Toigo, 29 June 06.
Putting boundaries on the degree to which one can disagree with his country — or what a newspaper may print or report — is a betrayal of freedom, ironic in a fight against what we obscure as "the enemies of freedom."
— JP, 29 June 06.
I like these quotes a bit more than the former two. It might be the sentence structure but they offer us an interesting insight into patriotic discourses.
This is America as Symbol, and what this discourse tends to emphasize is the way that the world and the population see the nation. It is a much more passive approach than the the former discourse, in that its focus internal rather than external. And of particular note is the way that these posters draw on contemporary debates to explore their argument about the value of freedom.
Of course, down here in Australia we don't have a Bill of Rights, and our freedom of speech is merely implied by the Constitutional right to vote; so I don't really know how special these rights really are. I suspect that the word freedom is more symbolic than concrete. Toigo's post contains the words free and freedom a total of 7 times, including the title, within 728 words. And for JP, it's 13 times in 1069 words. Rather frequent, don't you think?
It would seem that freedom is an ideal, a virtue ethic, rather than something that is accepted as the norm. Preoccupations with an ideal is a two edge sword in a sense, because on the one hand it can blind the individual to realities that contradict it, and on the other hand it can inspire frustration with human limitations.
I'm reminded of the latter in the words of John Stuart Mill, in his introduction to On Liberty:
The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power.
In sum, the problem with treating something as a symbol is that it can lead to imperialism and the restriction of others liberties.
And finally there is a third major discourse that almost goes unrecognised: America as a People.
By the second verse, several square blocks and hundreds of thousands of people were singing in near-unison, loud but not shouting, proud but not pious. No color guard has ever been so accompanied. We had all come singularly to celebrate in this, our day. And here we all were, together, to rejoice in this, our country.
— Diana Hartman, 3 July 06
I remember my father telling me how his brother and he ran out and signed up for the Army in December 1941, weeks before the call to duty came in the mail. They weren’t waiting for a decree to defend their liberty; they were ready to join the cause immediately because not to do so would be not only unpatriotic, it would be foolish because “liberty” for everyone was at stake.
— Victor Lana, 4 July 06
Isn't it interesting these sorts of posts tend to focus on more immediate concerns than ideological ones. Aspects of freedom are not at the centre of the commentary, and instead there is focus on the people and the community.
Of the three discourses, this approach is the only one that doesn't put emphasis on the government. Rather, this approach to the subject of independence day places tends to treat the event as an event. To some extent that occasion serves as an ink-blot, where many people make different meanings of the same celebrations.
It is interesting to consider the value of framing the people at the centre. Consider the inspiring words of Che Guevara, in The Essence of Guerilla Struggle:
The guerilla fighter therefore relies on the complete support of the people of the area. This is absolutely indispensable. And this can be seen very clearly by taking as an example gangs of bandits that operate in a region. They have all the characteristics of a guerrilla army: homogeneity, respect for the leader, bravery, knowledge of the terrain, and often even a complete understanding of the tactics to be employed. The only thing they lack is the support of the people, and inevitably these gangs are captured or exterminated by government forces.
Noticeably, this emphasis on the people is only somewhat contrary. While Che Guevara is concerned with toppling the bourgeoisie, American bloggers seem to place no emphasis on conflicts between social classes and in doing so promote the idea of being unified and perhaps equitable.
And so, again we return to an idealistic representation. As noted by Sharon Beder in Selling the Work Ethic, the idea of America not having a class system is a myth because it is rare for children to reach significantly higher or lower levels of income than their parents, and also because only a small minority have been able to lift themselves out of poverty.
Now, all this presents us with a relatively difficult problem. After examining the discourses, and different takes on American identity, I'm still rather befuddled at exactly what there is to celebrate. I suspect that it is the mythology and the exciting tales about the good guys triumphing against great odds. But this is hardly unique, and it is primarily though socialization that certain stories become treasured.
America is only a country. And I think that's important to remember.Powered by Sidelines