American Patriotism: A View from AbroadDONALD DEMARCO
Growing up in Massachusetts, I naturally imbibed a patriotic atmosphere. In the movies I was treated to the foot-tapping music of George M. Cohan performed with patriotic gusto by the inimitable Jimmy Cagney. In school, we were obliged to memorize Sit Walter Scott's "The Lay of the Last Minstrel". The intimidating power of the opening lines has never left me.
I was in this charming New England town on Memorial Day, enjoying the festivities, which included a lavish parade and a spate of patriotic speeches. As I sat on the green, amidst marching bands that were now no longer marching, a journalist was moving through the crowd collecting comments for a newspaper article. The day's festivities provided me with a most agreeable spectacle, and I began to formulate in my mind what I might say to the roving reporter if he requested a statement from me. He passed me by, however, more eager to solicit comments from others in the crowd. I was prepared to tell him that I was an American citizen who had been living in Canada for some time and that I felt privileged to witness the big heart of small-town America as it celebrated with unabashed pride, the love and loyalty it held for its homeland. I felt my own sense of patriotism blending with the display of patriotism expressed by all those around me. I wanted to tell my itinerant reporter that from my "perspective from abroad," so to speak, not only was I sharing the patriotic fervor that others were experiencing, but I wanted to compliment them on what they were doing. I was a co-celebrant, yet my status as an outsider allowed me to see them as a whole and affirm them from the outside. For me, it was a moment of patriotic fervor tinged with the poignancy of living abroad and not being allowed to share fully what my American compatriots were enjoying as full-fledged American citizens. It was just a little bit like crashing a wedding, even though one was a distant relative of the bride and groom.
Growing up in Massachusetts, I naturally imbibed a patriotic atmosphere. In the movies I was treated to the foot-tapping music of George M. Cohan performed with patriotic gusto by the inimitable Jimmy Cagney: "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy/ A Yankee Doodle do or die/ A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam's/ Born on the Fourth of July." In school, we were obliged to memorize Sit Walter Scott's "The Lay of the Last Minstrel". The intimidating power of the opening lines has never left me:
Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Portraits of Presidents Lincoln and Washington hung from the walls of seemingly every classroom. We learned much about these great American heroes, and were especially grateful to them when school closed on their respective birthdays every February. Now, of course, we have something called "President's Day" which is better identified with automobile sales and a long weekend than with the 1st and 16th presidents of the United States. "Lincoln" seems, in the minds of many, to be the brand name of a car, while we dare not violate the canons of political correctness by referring to Washington as the "Father of our Country" lest we arouse the sinister specter of "patriarchy".
Patriotism had reached a low ebb. If it was not dead, it was at least moribund. We supposed that we were living in a "global village". If patriotism was not linked to patriarchy, it was atavistic, sentimental, misguided, unpost-modern. Courts ruled that it was permissible to burn flags or wear them as apparel. The flag could not be defiled because patriotism was no longer a viable concept.
But 9/11 changed all that. Suddenly stores could not stock enough American flags. It became clear that America was a country whose citizens abounded with determination, strength, resilience, courage, compassion, generosity, and hope. To borrow Edmund Burke's word, America had suddenly become "lovely" again. Patriotism was reborn. And in its new incarnation, it seemed stronger than ever. "God Bless America" could not be heard often enough, either as a patriotic song or as the closing line of a patriotic speech.
Why is it, we must ask, that patriotism goes in and out of style? What accounts for its dramatic ebbs and flows? If patriotism is good, indeed, even a great virtue, it should transcend style and be an ever-present expression of a legitimate love and loyalty to one's homeland.
Words, as T. S. Eliot has reminded us, "slip, slide, perish/ Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still." Patriotism is continuously being confused with religion, on the one hand, and nationalism on the other.
Dr. Samuel Johnson once remarked that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." The American philosopher, Ralph Barton Perry had an insightful response: "If patriotism is 'the last refuge of a scoundrel,' it is not merely because evil deeds may be performed in the name of patriotism . . . but because patriotic fervor can obliterate moral distinctions altogether." Let us make the relevant moral distinctions.
Abraham Lincoln, in his Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861) may have captured and synthesized the essential elements of patriotism memory, heart, home, land, and being on the side of the angels in a manner that has not yet been surpassed for either its excellence or it eloquence. He stated as follows:
Donald DeMarco. "American Patriotism: A View from Abroad." National Catholic Register.
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