Our Fireworks

“One question in my mind, which I hardly dare mention in public, is whether patriotism has, overall, been a force for good or evil in the world. Patriotism is rampant in war and there are some good things about it. Just as self-respect and pride bring out the best in an individual, pride in family, pride in teammates, pride in hometown bring out the best in groups of people. War brings out the kind of pride in country that encourages its citizens in the direction of excellence and it encourages them to be ready to die for it. At no time do people work so well together to achieve the same goal as they do in wartime. Maybe that’s enough to make patriotism eligible to be considered a virtue. If only I could get out of my mind the most patriotic people who ever lived, the Nazi Germans.” ~ Andy Rooney, My War

“It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.” ~ Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

Another year, another Fourth of July – flags everywhere, picnics and parades and fireworks, and lots of patriotic talk – and lots of angry words about who isn’t really a patriot – this year about who should be excluded to “Make America Great Again” bumping up against the idea that what makes America great is how we include lots of different kinds of people. It’s an old argument – fear for our safety versus being open to change and growth, even if that might be uncomfortable for a time. On the Fourth of July that argument gets more intense, because the holiday is about the idea of America.

What is the idea of America? Those who have the right idea are patriots of course, but the idea always gets muddled in an election year. Accusations fly. Patriots don’t believe in global warming – that’s a hoax invented by the Chinese to ruin America? Patriots don’t allow any more Muslims into the country and will build a wall to keep Mexicans out, and will bust down doors and round up the eleven million that are here, put them in boxcars and send them south – while making sure gays cannot marry? Is that what America First means? Many don’t think so, but many do. What’s the American idea?

Roy Scranton may not be the one to ask about this. His new novel is War Porn – we gleefully do deadly odd things around the world – and three years ago it was Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization – about global warming, and here’s a taste of that:

Driving into Iraq just after the 2003 invasion felt like driving into the future. We convoyed all day, all night, past Army checkpoints and burned-out tanks, till in the blue dawn Baghdad rose from the desert like a vision of hell: Flames licked the bruised sky from the tops of refinery towers, cyclopean monuments bulged and leaned against the horizon, broken overpasses swooped and fell over ruined suburbs, bombed factories, and narrow ancient streets.

With “shock and awe,” our military had unleashed the end of the world on a city of six million – a city about the same size as Houston or Washington. The infrastructure was totaled: water, power, traffic, markets and security fell to anarchy and local rule. The city’s secular middle class was disappearing, squeezed out between gangsters, profiteers, fundamentalists and soldiers. The government was going down, walls were going up, tribal lines were being drawn, and brutal hierarchies savagely established.

I was a private in the United States Army. This strange, precarious world was my new home. If I survived.

Two and a half years later, safe and lazy back in Fort Sill, Okla., I thought I had made it out. Then I watched on television as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. This time it was the weather that brought shock and awe, but I saw the same chaos and urban collapse I’d seen in Baghdad, the same failure of planning and the same tide of anarchy. The 82nd Airborne hit the ground, took over strategic points and patrolled streets now under de facto martial law. My unit was put on alert to prepare for riot control operations. The grim future I’d seen in Baghdad was coming home: not terrorism, not even WMDs, but a civilization in collapse, with a crippled infrastructure, unable to recuperate from shocks to its system.

The argument proceeds from there – we created deadly chaos in Iraq (and now all the Middle East) and in another way we’re doing it worldwide – because we didn’t think things through. The proud exercise of American power is the problem, not the solution. That’s not a very patriotic thing to say, but this Fourth of July, Scranton tells a second Baghdad story:

Thirteen years ago, I spent the Fourth of July on the roof of a building in Baghdad that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Our command had suspended missions for the day, set up a grill and organized a “Star Wars” marathon – the three good ones – in an old auditorium. But George Lucas’s lasers couldn’t compete with the light show playing out across Baghdad, and watching a film about the warriors of an ancient religion rising up from the desert to fight a faceless empire seemed, under the circumstances, perverse.

So instead of “A New Hope,” I watched scenes from Operation Iraqi Freedom: tracers, helicopters, distant explosions in a modern city under an increasingly senseless occupation. I could see the United Nations compound that would get bombed later that summer. I could see the memorial to the soldiers who had died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, a giant turquoise teardrop sliced in two. I could see Sadr City, the wire-crossed slum that would give birth to Shiite death squads, and the Green Zone, where American proconsuls forged a new Iraq.

The Empire was striking back and he was one of the Imperial Stormtroopers and he didn’t like it much:

I was a Bicentennial baby, born in 1976; “Star Wars” was the first movie I saw, strapped in a car seat at the drive-in. The film must have implanted deep in my infant subconscious a worldview, an idea of justice and the desire to wield a light saber, all entangling as I grew older with the Bicentennial celebrating the American Revolution, another story of scrappy rebels fighting a mighty empire.

Ah, he was on the wrong side, or maybe he wasn’t:

“Star Wars” managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story that is so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.

In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes – whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.

The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence,” and he traces it from the earliest Indian captivity narratives through the golden age of the western, and it’s the same story we often tell ourselves today. It’s a story about how violence makes us American. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.

Violence makes us American? Violence makes us good? Trump promises to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and do far worse than torture, to Make America Great Again – and millions cheer – so perhaps Scranton is right. He says he thought he could confront America’s dark side, just like Luke Skywalker, and come away enlightened – but that was just a movie, and a source of confusion:

Veterans and pundits often talk about the military-civilian gap. So few Americans serve, they say, that most of the nation doesn’t have any sense of what that service means. This is superficially true. The military is a professional subculture with its own rituals, traditions and jargon. There’s a military-civilian gap just as there’s a police-civilian gap, an oil rigger-civilian gap, a barista-civilian gap. But that’s not what these vets and pundits mean.

What they’re really claiming is that veterans know something civilians don’t understand or can’t imagine, and that this failure of imagination is a failure of democracy, a failure of dialogue, a failure to listen. What they mean is that veterans have learned something special through their encounter with violence, and civilians need to hear that sacred knowledge.

They’re actually saying that’s patriotism, but Scranton isn’t buying it:

The truth is, most Americans understand what our soldiers do very well: They understand that American troops are sent overseas to defend American political and economic interests, wreak vengeance on those who have wronged us, and hunt down our enemies and kill them. There is no gap there. The American military has a job, and most of us, on some level, understand exactly what that job is. The American soldier or Marine is an agent of American state power.

The real gap is between the fantasy of American heroism and the reality of what the American military does, between the myth of violence and the truth of war. The real gap is between our subconscious belief that righteous violence can redeem us, even ennoble us, and the chastening truth that violence debases and corrupts.

Someone should mention that to Donald Trump, but it probably wouldn’t matter:

After the attacks on Sept. 11, American troops were deployed across the Middle East and Southwest Asia for reasons that were confused then and remain dubious today, but on some unconscious level the myth of violence was at work, promising that waging war abroad would heal the wounds suffered that day. We might have to get our hands dirty, but that trial itself would prove our commitment to American values. As George W. Bush said when we invaded Iraq: “We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others. And we will prevail.”

That’s not how things would turn out, as wiser heads warned at the time, but in the frightened months after Sept. 11, the myth of violence was more powerful than the truth of war. As an American soldier in Iraq, I was both caught up in that myth and released from it: I could see what “the work of peace” really looked like, what American violence did to Iraqi homes and bodies, yet it remained my job to be an agent of that violence – a violence that neither redeemed nor enlightened.

That doesn’t seem very patriotic, if patriotism admits no ambiguity, but Scranton does offer this:

There is another version of America beyond the noise our fireworks make: not military strength, but the deliberate commitment to collective self-determination. Perhaps this Fourth of July we could commemorate that. Instead of celebrating American violence, we might celebrate our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the ideals those documents invoke of an educated citizenry deciding its fate not through war but through civil disagreement. Instead of honoring our troops, whose chief virtues are obedience and aggressiveness, we could honor our great dissenters and conscientious objectors. And instead of blowing things up, maybe we could try building something.

It’s our choice. We make our myths.

Perhaps we do, and in the Los Angeles Times, Mark Oppenheimer looks at this in terms of our flag:

In many parts of the country, American flags fly all year, not just on government buildings but on front porches and trucks. Where I live, they have a season. They come out in late June, just in time for Independence Day. They are clean and look freshly unfolded, creased where they were divided in half, then in quarters, so they could fit high on the shelf in the garage. When the flags come out, we are proclaiming a holiday, not a way of life.

I come from flag-ambivalent America. My neighborhood is peopled by gays and Jews, professors and social workers, and Catholics of the Dorothy Day persuasion. Yoga practitioners and yoga teachers. Vegetarians. Bicycling enthusiasts.

We love the Fourth of July, with its long weekend, its parades, its backyard barbecues (veggie burgers available). It wouldn’t be Independence Day without flag bunting on floats, flags lining our Main Streets, flags adorning houses. But we aren’t much for patriotic symbolism the rest of the year. For us, it’s an article of faith that crude patriotism quickly turns on the underdog, the minority. We know how the flag is used to impose loyalty tests, which we find un-American.

That might be called the weaponization of our flag:

We remember how, in 1988, presidential candidate George H. W. Bush ridiculed Michael Dukakis for opposing mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, a position deeply consonant with American freedom of conscience. The following year, the Supreme Court enraged flag-obsessed patriots when it ruled in Texas vs. Johnson that statutes protecting the American flag from desecration were unconstitutional. Flags could now be burned with impunity!

Except that flag-burning had never really been a thing. I’ve had lefty-pinko-subversive friends all my life, many with the awful music collections to prove it, and I’ve never seen a flag burned. But the fear of lefty-pinko-subversive flag-burners was useful political theater, and from 1995 to 2005 Republicans in Congress repeatedly proposed an amendment to allow laws prohibiting flag desecration. The point was never to pass the amendment, but to force liberals to vote against it, so that they could be branded traitors, like Dukakis.

Then things got worse:

The Senate last voted on the amendment in 2006. The next year, a young senator from Illinois running a quixotic campaign for president happened not to wear a flag pin on his lapel. And the media inquired as to why.

“The truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” Barack Obama told a local television reporter in Iowa on Oct. 3, 2007. But he soon became concerned that, for many people, the pin substituted for deeper thought. “I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead I’m going to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”

Although Obama, a shrewd politician, eventually took to wearing lapel jewelry, some conservatives never forgot Obama’s treachery. “Romney’s flag pin is much larger than Obama’s flag pin,” noted a writer for the National Review’s blog, commenting on a presidential debate in 2012.

Yes, that was an ongoing controversy, which many of us ignored, even if it was a very big deal in conservative circles. Mark Oppenheimer doesn’t travel in those circles:

We need symbols, but symbolism too often replaces, rather than complements, thoughtfulness. …

The Judeo-Christian tradition has a name for that heresy: idol worship. Like many houses of worship, my synagogue hangs an American flag in the front (and an Israeli one, too). I wish we wouldn’t. If I face the Torah scroll, I’m confronted by those two schmattes on sticks. Yet the Torah is the opposite of a crude symbol. Like other great books – like the U.S. Constitution, for that matter – it invites us not to simplify but to enlarge our thinking. It invites, indeed has been improved by, interpretation.

Antonin Scalia didn’t believe that. Strict Constructionists don’t believe that – what the words on the page meant at the time they were written on the page is all that matters. The framers never mentioned any “right to privacy” so Griswold was decided wrongly – the police can bust down the door and arrest a married couple for using any kind of birth control – and thus Roe was decided wrongly – abortion is not a private matter – and gays don’t have a right to be left alone to do what they want to do with each other in private – and so on and so forth. The framers mentioned none of that. Interpretation is not allowed. Interpretation is not a testimony to patriotism.

That’s also not the majority view, yet, but Oppenheimer is more concerned with the flag:

On the Fourth of July, flags make me think about a war fought for democracy, a subsequent struggle to make that democracy better and more inclusive, and, most immediately, a holiday, a day off, so a free people can enjoy some extra leisure. But the rest of the year? Flags make me uneasy. I know their owners are checking out my lapel, and probably my front porch. And I know what they’re not seeing.

That is a problem, but three days earlier it was Canada Day. Their First of July is their equivalent of our Fourth of July and they have a different sort of problem. The New York Times reports here on their major issue with welcoming in Syrian refugees. Too many Canadians want to sponsor Syrian refugees and the government can’t provide enough refugees to satisfy demand:

Across Canada, ordinary citizens, distressed by news reports of drowning children and the shunning of desperate migrants, are intervening in one of the world’s most pressing problems. Their country allows them a rare power and responsibility: They can band together in small groups and personally resettle – essentially adopt – a refugee family. In Toronto alone, hockey moms, dog-walking friends, book club members, poker buddies and lawyers have formed circles to take in Syrian families. The Canadian government says sponsors officially number in the thousands, but the groups have many more extended members. …

“I can’t provide refugees fast enough for all the Canadians who want to sponsor them,” John McCallum, the country’s immigration minister, said in an interview.

Zack Beauchamp comments on that:

This kind of inclusiveness increasingly feels anomalous for the developed world – and not just because of Donald Trump and Brexit. In countries around Europe, anti-Muslim prejudice has swelled since the 2015 refugee crisis. There, far-right parties, united mostly by their strong appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment, have surged in popularity.

What this points to, then, is something that some scholars have termed “Canadian exceptionalism”: The country is just a lot more welcoming to immigrants and minorities than virtually every country in the Western world. While Canada certainly has problems with xenophobia and discrimination, it is less afflicted by these ills than its peers in the West.

Their conservatives found that out the hard way:

In the final stages of the Canadian election in October 2015 were suffused with a sort anti-Islam rhetoric. Incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, of the Conservative Party, spent months decrying the wearing of the niqab, a face-covering garment worn by some Muslim women, particularly by immigrants during citizenship ceremonies. The niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women,” Harper said. Wearing it when “committing to joining the Canadian family,” according to the prime minister, “is not the way we do things.”

The comments were widely understood to be a dog-whistle for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment: Harper was appealing to Canadians who thought Muslim immigration threatened their culture and values.

And indeed, Harper went up in the polls after these remarks. However, he mostly took votes from the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s left-wing party, meaning that Harper’s Muslim baiting ironically may well have helped Justin Trudeau’s center-left Liberal Party defeat him. So Harper’s Islamophobic tack – which, incidentally, was far milder than what you see in the US and Europe nowadays – ended up failing.

And since Trudeau’s victory, Harper’s politics of division has faded away. While Harper’s office had stymied the resettlement of Syrian refugees, Trudeau has already exceeded his campaign promise to admit 25,000 of them into the country. According to a March immigration proposal, Trudeau aims to bring in at least 12,000 more Syrians by the end of the year.

Trudeau is doing all this without facing a major nativist backlash. In fact, support for the Liberals has skyrocketed since his election in October and remained high…

So we’re having a bit of a unique moment. While most of the Western world is seeing a surge in nativism and Islamophobia, the Canadian government has become more and more open to minority groups and immigration.

How did that happen? How do things like this happen on Canada Day? Beauchamp explains:

“Compared to the citizens of other developed immigrant-receiving countries, Canadians are by far the most open to and optimistic about immigration,” Irene Bloemraad, a sociologist at UC Berkeley and its chair of Canadian studies, wrote in a 2012 study published by the Migration Policy Institute.

“In one comparative poll, only 27 percent of those surveyed in Canada agreed that immigration represented more of a problem than an opportunity. In the country that came closest to Canadian opinion, France, the perception of immigration as a problem was significantly higher, at 42 percent.”

Why? According to Bloemraad, the Canadian government has spent decades attempting to foster tolerance and acceptance as core national values, through policies aimed at integrating immigrants and minority groups without stripping them of their group identity.

For example, Canada emphasized permanent resettlement and citizenship in its immigration policy, rather than the sort of guest worker policies you’ve often seen in the US and Europe.

This actually worked in reshaping the values of citizens, making them more tolerant.

The Canadian government spent decades attempting to foster tolerance and acceptance as core national values – on purpose? That’s a matter of explicitly defining patriotism in their own way:

Indeed, one recent paper found that, in Canada, those who expressed more patriotism were also more likely to support immigration and multiculturalism. In the United States this correlation went in the opposite direction: those expressing greater patriotism were more likely to express anti-immigrant attitudes.

Trudeau’s inclusionary politics have worked, then, because he’s operating in a country that has long prioritized tolerance as a matter of public policy.

We can’t even agree on that as public policy. Donald Trump is doing well. But violence makes us American and violence makes us good, just like with Luke Skywalker in those Star Wars movies. And you’d better wear that flag pin. We don’t like traitors. One must be careful in America on the Fourth of July – but the fireworks are always excellent.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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