Even this far from America, the whiff of U.S. patriotism — a heady blend of gunpowder, barbecue smoke and hot air — was unusually palpable last week. Tuesday was Independence Day, always an occasion for Americans to put out more flags, if only because they like the look of red, white and blue in July sunshine.
The U.S. presidential election campaigns continue to encourage true believers of every political stripe to show their colors. (The “Jelly-bellied Flag-flappers,” as Rudyard Kipling called people like them, will have their peak moment during the staged frenzy of the party conventions later in the summer.)
Flag makers nationwide have reported unexpected shortages in all sizes of Old Glory (“People just seem to be getting more patriotic,” said one bemused dealer). And in a move perfectly scripted for the media age, U.S. television producer Norman Lear and Internet entrepreneur David Hayden last week bought one of the few surviving original copies of the Declaration of Independence in an online auction. The two plan to take their trophy on the road as the star of a traveling U.S. heritage show, complete with actors and rap artists. “Twelve months a year, we want to remind Americans of the stake they have in the preamble of that document,” Mr. Lear said.
Finally, riding the wave (but garnering the lion’s share of publicity) is Mr. Mel Gibson’s new film, “The Patriot.” It is unclear whether the movie, described as a rousing, jingoistic portrayal of the American Revolution, has stirred up nationalist sentiment or is just reflecting it, but one thing is clear: It has certainly started a debate about the whole idea of patriotism and its status in turn-of-the-millennium America. The particulars may be American, but the underlying themes are of interest to people in all countries — none more so than Japan, a nation still nervous about expressing its own nationalism and concomitantly suspicious of it in others.
Most of the fireworks in the U.S. debate were ignited by the critics, who were near-unanimous in panning “The Patriot” — less on technical or dramatic grounds, however, (they praised the cinematography, special effects and some of the acting), than for the paucity and predictability of its ideas. But, others have objected, what are these ideas? Pretty much what you would find in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence that so inspires Mr. Lear and Mr. Hayden. Things like: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed . . . with certain unalienable Rights . . .” and: “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed . . .”
“The Patriot,” some say, may not be a great movie, but isn’t there something odd about a country when its cultural spokesmen, in this case movie critics, cannot contemplate its founding ideals unironically. They see an unbridgeable gap between Americans who take those words (and the words of the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address and other seminal documents) seriously and those who react with reflexive cynicism — perhaps because they are too conscious of historical shortfalls, perhaps because in a satirical age they find it hard to take anything seriously. The interesting thing about the recent apparent resurgence of plain old feel-good American patriotism is that it suggests the gap is wider, and the frankly patriotic class larger, than at any time since the days of the quintessential Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper, President Ronald Reagan.
Thoughtful people might find themselves at a loss in this war of perceptions. “My country right or wrong” can simultaneously seem heroic or idiotic. The Founding Fathers — like Japan’s founding myths — are in some lights venerable and in others contemptible. (Look at the drubbing Thomas Jefferson has taken since the recent revelation of his politically incorrect sexual relationship with a slave. Or the discrediting of Japan’s divinity myths since their perceived co-option by militarists). Is patriotism a touchstone of integrity or the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Dr. Johnson put it? Conversely, why is “unpatriotic” behavior sometimes deemed bad and sometimes good? Many Americans still consider President Bill Clinton a traitor because he didn’t fight in a war he personally opposed and which historians have since judged dubious. Yet Albert Einstein is considered a hero for having renounced his German citizenship at the age of 16 and become a lifelong antinationalist. Clearly, context is all.
“Patriotism,” said Edith Cavell, executed by German nationalists in World War I, “is not enough.” No, and sometimes it is too much. We have the current debate to thank for reminding us of our patriotic duty to try and tell the difference.
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