China is orchestrating a vast celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, this week. It’s a command performance in which the real object of people’s appreciation is economic wellbeing caused by managed capitalism wearing a Communist Party mask. At the same time, the USA is setting off fireworks and ramping up patriotic sentiment (somewhat short of fervor, it seems) to mark July 4, US Independence Day. A few days ago Great Britain commemorated the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, with a marching band in red coats and black hats as must be done, despite the pandemic, lest tradition be tarnished.
A patriotic narrative develops from a consensus. It evolves into a legend, which is a level removed from undifferentiated historical facts. The legend inspires stories and songs. Then come memorials, historic sites, and anniversary events.
On the whole, patriotic zeal is subdued these days.
The days are over when Kate Smith could stir our hearts as she belted-out “God Bless America.”
I, being ever suspicious of philosophical forces, would like to blame Foucault and his mentor Wittgenstein for having undermined people’s faith in national narratives, which are the essential fuel of patriotism. These mega-narratives, the philosophers told us, were manipulating us. At the time Foucault was writing, most of the generation who had not been annihilated in the battles, bombings, concentration camps, and gulags, were still alive and ashamed of having swallowed the myths and propaganda that portrayed the military as the backbone of all that’s important to civilization. In light of all that had happened just a decade or two earlier, those nationalistic tropes were shameful and best put out of mind. For example, Konrad Adenauer, on the whole a progressive statesman, humanitarian leader, and intellectual, was nevertheless outraged when William L Shirer published The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Adenauer was upset because the book reopened fetid memories. The USA elected its conquering general President and applauded his highways and the better life in the suburbs. Patriotism began to decline but “the Red scare” slowed the slide until after Woodstock.
But philosophy is not to blame. Foucault and Derrida seemed to think they could do what Sartre had done, using persuasive criticism to sway the masses. Mao was the last one to be able to do that for half a century. Terror and rumors have replaced reason and debate.
Actually, philosophy rarely convinces a generation to think. Most people do not read philosophy. It is the other way around. Philosophy reads people.
Philosophy retrieves scattered spatters and throws them back onto a matrix and nails them into a frame, like a Jackson Pollock painting, for critics to stand back, make sense of, and admire as they will. A Van Gogh painting is not about sunlight in Provence, but about brilliantly executed brushstrokes. Even the exquisite and precise paintings of Jacques-Louis David are not about the death of Marat or the coronation of Napoleon, but all about reformatting current events as if they were classic and timeless, leaving people in galleries suspended in fantasy exactly as Dickens, Tolstoy, and Kafka were about to do.
Patriotism’s artifacts are motivational. But that power to move us is transitory. When it fades the artifacts are archived or reinterpreted. What does the obelisk to George Washington mean to Gen-Z youth? Or the Brandenburg Gate? The Lincoln Memorial has been given sustained pertinence by being the site of repeated events to commemorate emancipation and advocate civil rights. Sometimes patriotic monuments are destroyed as were Saddam Hussein’s, or they are engorged as at Mount Rushmore and the great pyramids, in order to make them ineradicable. Nevertheless, sand is the destiny of all of them.
This is a nadir of patriotism around the world, although patriotism has been usurped in behalf of supremacist religion, here and there. Patriotic legends are reduced to cartoons when that happens. Patriotic symbols become weapons. Even the poles on which flags are carried sometimes become spears once again as happened literally at the US Capitol during the insurrection on January 6. But for the great majority patriotism has declined without being morphed into cultural religion of any sort. You can tell that is going to happen when patriotic remembrances decline into military celebrations. It is in full swing when the celebrations consciously erase marginalized people and their contributions.
The decline of patriotism ends when the patria (Latin for homeland) ends, either through disintegration or relegation. Or when the country, with resources to support it, rebounds and responds to a new consensus about what it is all about.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.