Monday, September 22, 2008

Patriot, Patria, Pater...quid est?

Barring errors in the pathetic bit of Latin I can still pull up, the title of this blog summarizes (via a bad language proof) a big thing that's on my mind these days.

I should preface this by noting: I am currently back in the academic fold, and loving every bleeding second of it. A friend asked me how the program was going, and the only image that I could come up with was that of a lover you can't stand to be away from. Fortunately for me and my colleagues, I am relatively well-adjusted about love. I can and do stand being away--but the passion does not abate. Ah, intellectual masturbation, artistic flagellation, how I do love thee.

A characteristic of being back in the academic fold is that, once again, I spend time with people who think seriously about things like poetry, ethics, etc. Not always at the same time, of course. I would never claim that everyone in my program were involved in grassroots movements or even registered to vote. (Well, they better be registered to vote.) But, in general, these are people who do think about their relation to their country--whether that thinking takes the forms of righteous indignation, fear and loathing, anxiety, etc. (Times are tough, kids. Few apple-cheeked flag-fliers in these parts, these days.)

So, I do feel a little guilty blogging about what I happen to know people are actually thinking about it. To save you, dear reader, and myself the ignominy of trudging through yet another tortuous blog entry on pent-up liberal angst, I'm going to cut right to the chase:

What is patriotism?

I asked S. this yesterday, while suffering another weepy bout of self-serving sorrow and fear that the country is barreling down a mountain in the dark, headed right for a granite wall. The sorrow is self-serving, as I observed to S., because it is predicated on a sense of entitlement that I am not sure I am right to feel. After all, why should I feel entitled to freedom, health care, the right to choose what goes on with my girl bits, peace, etc.? In a true democracy, it is my fellow countrypersons who, along with myself, design the parameters of our rights. We have the guidance of just over 200 years of government, an old document called the Constitution that we (used to) take pretty seriously and a whole bunch of conflicting viewpoints vying for a voice to guide us.

So, whither this sense of entitlement? Is it that I never was good at group projects, or is it that the idea of sublimating my beliefs to the 51% of Americans who (so far) appear to believe Sarah Palin is qualified to be the next president REALLY bothers me?

Being a child of the so-labeled "Entitlement Generation" by the hair of my chinny-chin-born-in-'79-chin, I tend to flagellate myself about the tendency to "expect" too much. Though, if I realize that my expectations may not be "fair" or "justified," I tend to wonder if I really can be lumped in with that crowd. It's hard for me to say. But, I am working under the assumption of responsibility for my generation. Let's carry on.

Lately I feel that I am experiencing a second adolescence, where my country is my parent and I am the disillusioned, angry, idealistic teen. I feel that I am seeing my father-land with clearer, older eyes, and the child within is angry, hurt and righteously indignant in the face of the perceived injustices acted upon me by this so-called father.

I am horrified by the war(s) perpetuated by the hands of those who do not fight.

I am horrified by the looming threat(s) and ever-slippery legislation challenging the one right I never expected I'd have to fear losing (i.e. Roe v. Wade).

I am horrified that my mother is racking up debt so she can afford to buy her medication during the "donut hole" days.

I am sickened that our country thinks less of its children's health and welfare than it does of its old-boy networks of oil greed.

I am disgusted BEYOND disgust at the mockery of progressive-ism (is that an -ism?) that is Sarah Palin's nomination.

And underneath all of these jolting energies is a profound sorrow. It feels similar to the sorrow I experienced years ago after my first adolescence, unpacking the baggage I carried from my short history as a subject in the Kingdom of My Parents, whose parental choices were not always good, whose luck also was not always good, and who had the audacity of being (gasp!) human.

It's the sorrow that recognizes the vulnerability of the child I was, or say the citizen I was. It's the sorrow that weeps to realize that while my "father" and "fatherland" have not acted against "me" on purpose, they definitely acted against the guiding principle of "father"hood -- that of caring for and protecting one's "child." (I am throwing quotes around because when I compare my feelings toward the country to those toward my parents, I am not addressing specifically my father, just the idea of the father.)

Growing up in a military family, I was trained to never ask what my country could do for me, but what I could do for my country. After all, my country was the best place on earth. Just ask my dad. Just ask his tee-shirts that swore he'd fly 10,000 miles to "smoke a camel jockey."

And I loved my country, the way a child loves her perhaps-politically-misguided father--without questioning the validity of that love, with the blind trust that marks all of our childhood attachments to caretakers.

Deep down, I am ashamed to be taking my country to task for its wrongs in the same way I have been ashamed to take my parents to task for past wrongs. The main difference here is that my parents are human, while the country is humanoid. Created by and run by humans, but lacking the appendages and faculties by which healing most easily occurs (i.e. an intellect and heart, a mouth for communicating, arms for hugging), a country has only time by which to heal the wounds of past mistakes.

The dominant American rhetoric regarding post-adolescent angst and anger at parents can be summarized in two phrases: get over it, and/or get a shrink. There is a certain amount of validity to each point, though we all know the timeline for "getting over it" varies widely. It depends on personality. It depends on the parent. But most particularly, it depends on the history, and the graveness of the wrongs--are we talking about not having much freedom to go to parties, or abuse?

I would like to ask Asian-Americans how they feel about WWII internment camps. Has the wrong been assuaged? If so, what accomplished that? Was it time? The fact that their grandparents who remembered the injustice are dead? Because everyone around them (the aggregate intellect and heart that is the base of a country) said it was sorry? Because they got a shrink and just got over it?

I digress. There are so many digressions possible here.

Returning to the point: entitlement. Does one have a right to feel a sense of entitlement toward one's country? Do Asian-Americans have a right to feel that they deserve(d) reparations for the wrongs of internment? Peter Levine's book, The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens helps confront this question:
Patriotism is a love of country. For most people, it is not a passionate and exclusive and life-altering love. It's more like love for a blood relative, perhaps an aunt. It doesn't involve choice. It doesn't require a tremendously high estimate of the object's intrinsic qualities. (You may admire Mother Teresa more than your Aunt Theresa, but it is the latter you love.) It implies a sense of obligation, including the obligation to understand and be interested in the object. It also implies a sense of entitlement: you can expect your own aunt, or your nation, to help you in ways that others need not. Both the obligation and the entitlement arise because of a sense of identification, a "we-ness," a seeing of yourself in the object and vice versa. (Levine, 146)
According to Levine (and to a little etymological game-playing with the Latin root pater), maybe this sense of entitlement isn't something about which I should feel shame. Maybe it's actually the mechanism by which patriotism actually works--where "obligation and entitlement" are the two-sides of the tug-o'-war that is the democratic We in action.

When I was living in France, and John Mellancamp saved me from despondent hours by bringing a bit of Americana into my apartment, was that like getting a letter from Aunt Theresa? Was it a way of soldering the tie that binds, building my sense of obligation by fulfilling the needs to which I have become entitled by virtue of my citizenship?

These are big questions. I will continue noodling over this.

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