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Some Thoughts on American Patriotism…

In France and around the world, July Fourth is a day like any other, i.e., one to complain, worry, moan, wail, and lament, not least over Uncle Sam's misdeeds as well as the distressing state of patriotism among Americans.

A good example of this was visible in a film review over two years ago. When Black Hawk Down opened in France, Le Monde's Samuel Blumenfeld let off a broadside, and, for good measure, fired a couple of shots at Behind Enemy Lines as well. Why? Because the movies were badly filmed? No. Because the actors did a lousy job? No. Because the filmmakers took liberties with the truth? Hardly, since both were based on actual events (one showed a battle on the background of the Somalia famine and the other described the Serbs' mass graves in the former Yugoslavia).

No, the films were lambasted because they presented a "questionable ideology" and had "propaganda designs". Of what type? You better sit down and hold on to your seat when you hear this: to give "a valorous image of the patriotism and the endurance of American soldiers". Ohlala! Isn't that shocking?!

The film reviewer went on to bemoan the fact that warlord Aideed's soldiers are shown as "sadistic, cheating, vicious […] the alter egos of the savage Germanic tribes […] in Gladiator, by the same Ridley Scott." A director whom the critic castigates for leaving something out. Oh, what is that, pray tell? For not showing…"the ordinary racism of certain American soldiers or questioning the African policies of President Clinton".

(Visibly, Blumenfeld has not been informed that part of the reason for the movie's existence was to criticize the Clinton administration's policies in the 90s and that a notice explaining this at the end of the film was removed only because of the shock of September 11. Incidentally, it has never seemed to inconvenience the film critic much that films criticizing Paris's African policies, or Jacques Chirac in the manner of Fahrenheit 9/11, do not exactly abound in France. As to the hypothesis (which I happen to share, I don't know why) that the two Hollywood movies present "a valorous image of the patriotism and the endurance of American soldiers" simply because… that happens to be the truth, let's not get into that, shall we, I don't think Blumenfeld would understand…)

In other words, American patriotism, in today's world, is so ridiculous, and so insidious, that even among the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II and even among the mass killings of a famished population, it is that treacherous danger which the world must fear and fight and denounce by any means available. The danger is so terrible that it eclipses the war crimes of Somali warlords and of Yugoslav butchers. Yes, you heard that right: That the militias in fact did machine gun the Somali crowds, what importance compared to the fact that a G.I. or two may have uttered racist words! At least the people shot dead by their own people did not suffer from any type of racism. What a relief!

Who cares about the Bosnia mass graves! Who cares about the Mogadishu massacres! Compared with the simple fact that Hollywood distributes films that might be called patriotic, and the terrible danger their content (along with that of McDonald's, Coca-Cola, etc) represents, those atrocities evaporate into nothingness.

To leave the film world behind for the international stage per se, Le Monde once asked if one shouldn't "fear the implementation of a Pax Americana" in Yugoslavia. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming when I read that! The reason I find this accusation extremely offensive is that, for four years, Yugoslavia was beset by war, with murders, killings, and rape, with hideous crimes, mass graves, and genocide. Finally, the international community put an end to it. But because the Americans were the ones who were paramount in this undertaking, the French abstain from calling the end of the tragedy a positive event. The Serbs are the worst criminals to stage a war in Europe since 1945, and for now, at least, their killing is over. But what danger do some Europeans fret about? That peace came under the orders of Uncle Sam...

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Ironic comments, tch-tching, scorn, and horselaughter are inevitably the reactions when discussing American patriotism in many parts of the world. After all, they claim, isn't Washington the source of the main troubles of the world for the past 60 years? If that is correct, then it can be only true that U.S. patriotism is little more than a dangerous trap or some kind of disease or superstition, from people who believe — how ridiculous they are! — in something not unrelated to witches and fairy tales.

As everyone here in Europe knows: any society which does not offer the type of guarantees, equality, and social protection that the European models do is not worth living in, or believing in, and any government that does not try to implement same is not worth keeping in power. And anybody, in turn, who might believe differently can only be under the spell of a smoke screen, which deserves only to be deplored, scorned, and mocked. So, America, with its "itch to fight" and its "excess of testosterone" which has "inflamed the country" (the French verb, enfiévrer [to make feverish], suggests a disease) can only be of an object of ridicule and scorn, as well as a danger without precedent.

Following 911, I expected French friends and acquaintances of mine who came back from visits to the U.S. to return with some sense of respect or admiration. Don't kid yourselves! Many shared the same tone of exasperation and disbelief in their voices: How can one be so patriotic (that is, so superstitious)?

It was a rhetorical question, and some were surprised that I answered it. My answer was that I didn't know what they are talking about. What happens when one goes to the United States? One sees a lot of flags and… That's about it. Ain't that right? One does not see hysterical demonstrations walking down the avenues. One does not see signs reading "Down with the Taliban" or "Death to Iraq". One does not hear the "cowboys" shout "Vive la guerre!" I have not seen many Americans set fire to Iraqi or Afghan (or Vietnamese) flags. I don't remember seeing any throw tomatoes or molotov cocktails on the Soviet or Chinese embassies.

When one points out that George W Bush made a speech in an American mosque, or that he observed Ramadan, or that he spoke of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, the reaction is only horse laughter or scorn, because of course — of course! — it can only be a sham. (As it happens, it is not in America that mosques [or synagogues] are burnt down at alarming rates.)

In January 2002, the Council of American-Islamic Relations put the responsability of eight murders on reactions to the events of September 11. The authorities could only confirm one of those, at the most two, as motivated by anti-Arab hatred. In any case, one is far from that fear (expressed in America as well as elsewhere) that Americans, as a people, would lump Muslims in general together with the terrorists (faire l'amalgame) and unleash a wave of terror against the Muslim population of their country. (Once more, the Europeans hold that without their precious advice, unthinking Americans could only act irresponsibly — how modest of those Europeans.)

We have seen many a time on this weblog that by simply doing a little digging, it appears that so-called humanistic activists (whether in the shape of intellectuals, groups, national leaders, or countries) are not as neutral, idealistic, and lucid as they seem to believe themselves, but present many an inconsistency, often more than the Americans they criticize. Thus it is with patriotism as well. In contrast to the irony expressed when dealing with American patriotism (and that of other Western countries), they seem often to lose all their marbles when confronted with the national pride of developing countries. They can only marvel when third-world countries (or, rather, their unelected leaders) evoke "national aspirations" and the construction and the future of their nations.

In the aftermath of 911, then, Americans unfurled the Stars and Stripes, voiced their support for the acting president, and pulled up their sleeves to go to work. Insofar as this character trait is supposed to provoke ridicule, I find it rather solemn and low key. And there is nothing new about this. In fact, the journalist Arthur Higbee, a Pacific War veteran, wrote in the International Herald Tribune that after Pearl Harbour, America's attitude was even more low key.

Very few people hung out flags, and nobody wore a flag lapelpin. No flag-waving was needed. The tone of the nation was one of grim determination. Recruiting offices were overflowing.

"Grim determination": there is a better description of patriotic America, today and in the past, than Dana Burde's pacifist caricature which was praised by Le Monde ("the loud cries demanding war and vengeance, combined with media censorship, have almost drowned out the few voices of the left" [the only voices filled with reason and understanding, of course, you realize]) — a caricature which has been eagerly repeated day in and day out in the French media, in the European media, and in the Arab media for years.

But it is not only in wartime that American patriotism is low-key. While many countries favor solemn military parades on their national holidays, or at least a predominant role for the military, the Fourth of July is, above all things, a party. Oh, of course there is the flag ceremony, with a handful of military people present from each service — army, navy, air force, marines — but it's above all a party, with barbecueing (hotdogs, burgers, spare ribs, etc), games, and fireworks.

And if the military — and veterans — have a special place at the festivities, whether on July Fourth or other holidays, they are only a piece of the puzzle which also includes bands, pompon girls, floats, ethnic pride groups, cowboys, Indians, and clowns — I've seen a parade where the marching soldiers were preceded, followed, and surrounded by dozens of clowns. (Try that on the Champs-Élysées, in Red Square, on at Tien An Men!)

As I write this — 4 juillet oblige — I am listening to the Jingle Cats sing The Star-Spangled Banner and Yankee Doodle Dandy. For some reason, I have trouble imagining a lucid Frenchman, a down-to-earth Russian, or a wise Chinese person setting their national anthems to cats' meows. Non, their wailing takes other, less enjoyable, directions.

Wailing Europeans and other Uncle Sam detractors ought to make sure they keep their droning continuous and never-ending. Because, if instead of endlessly lamenting the distressing state of Americans' patriotism, they were to shut up and try and study it a little more closely and a little more rationally, they might come to believe that Yankee patriotism is not so mystical, or frightening, or perilous, as is commonly believed. Then they would have less to wail about. Can you imagine that!? Wouldn't that be awful?!

As for me, for some reason, I prefer the laughter and the joy of the American spirit.

Happy Fourth of July, everybody!

July 4, 2004

© Erik Svane

(Lady Liberty Fireworks:
Thanks to Bob Gurfield)

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One of the World's Most Enduring Stereotypes