On Patriotism and Populism

There was a moment there in November of 2008 when I actually thought that this country may have turned a very serious corner. How could I not have felt something like that? After eight painful years of George W. Bush’s failures and the election of Barack Obama to the White House, what other feeling was there for a young man who had spent so much time while living in Europe feeling ashamed of the actions of his home country? I stuck up for America as best I could, pointing out a number of Europe’s failures and how easy it was to judge those in action while sitting safely on the sidelines, but there were many, many times when there was little else I could do other than fall silent, nod, and wait for the discussion to take a turn away from the role America was playing in the world at the time.

The very fact that I used the word “ashamed” in the same paragraph as I mention America pigeonholes me as an anti-American socialist sympathizer (or worse) for a number of this nation’s “patriots.” And so be it. I don’t take lightly to having the definition of what it means to be American shoved down my throat. Neither does John Avlon, who takes a scathing look at the choice of 19 April — allegedly chosen to coincide with “the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, celebrated as Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts and Maine” — for the Second Amendment rallies held today in his article “Today’s Holiday of Hate.” The highlight of Avlon’s article comes in a quote from the Kari Watkins of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum: “We can get to a middle ground but we can’t do that with the extreme left or right—we’ve got to live in the middle… We have just about knocked ourselves off that axis and we are in a very dangerous position in terms of the mood of the country.”

Another article I stumbled upon was Peter Beinart’s “The Tea Party’s Phony Populism,” a work that caustically demolishes the idea that the Tea Party is a movement based on “standing up for the little guy.” In a particularly strong portion of the article, Beinart writes that “[the Tea Party are] today’s version of the California suburbanites who rose up against their property tax bills in the late 1970s rather than pay for decent schools for the Golden State’s black and Hispanic kids. They’re the second coming of what Robert Kuttner called ‘the revolt of the haves.'”

It’s shocking — both in frightening and darkly comical ways — that words like “patriot” and “populism” are so poorly thrown about in today’s political and media landscapes. It’s enough to make one wonder if Wittgenstein indeed had it right — if we knew exactly how to express ourselves, perhaps we wouldn’t have so many problems. I wish this country, after pouring millions upon millions of dollars into Wars on Terror and Drugs, would start funding a War on Ignorance. We grow up in this country with our morals riding on the backs of figures like David, who cleverly and bravely took down Goliath despite the seemingly unfair advantage the latter had with regards to strength and size. It’s the archetypal “little guy” story, one that has been oft cited in many newspaper articles and repeated and recycled in countless works of fiction. Yet America is stumbling ever so close to being little better than Goliath — all size and strength, no wits. Is that really the story we want to tell, to be a part of?

8 Responses to “On Patriotism and Populism”
  1. hoboduke says:

    What is the perfect, ideal country? The country that embraces outcasts, allows them equal access to services and rights even if illegal immigrants? The country that tries to protect those in harm’s way eithery by natural disaster or genocide? Let me know if you can name a few countries. I don’t have to defend USA as perfect. Our people willingly sacrifice to help, and don’t need social mandates to be fair. Laws protect us, but yes we are a nation of criminals and law breakers as well. All the immigrants came as religious outcasts, trouble makers, and on death lists like my father fleeing the Russian utopia death camps.

    • larsgarvey says:

      As I said to many of my English and Swedish friends, the brightest lights often cast the longest shadows. With friends and family who work at the Red Cross, WHO, FEMA, and DHS, I get to hear daily about the good America does. If my tone suggested that I dislike or have lost faith in this country, then I worded myself poorly. I worry, sometimes quite a bit, but I am damn glad to be waking up in this country every morning.

      That said, there are issues this country needs to recognize, confront, and overcome — and I am not speaking only of fringe groups on the far-right, but groups on the far-left as well. Extremism is a serious issue, especially when these extremists claim to embody the best and/or founding traits of a nation.

      The Obama administration seems to have fueled a rise in extremism, on both the left and right. Unsurprisingly, with a liberal in office, the most vocal (or the most widely covered) of these groups are on the right. My worry is that too many Americans are looking for reasons why there can’t be any middle ground instead of looking for ways we can compromise, learn, work together, and move forward.

      I hope that one day we get back to a place where Americans across the political spectrum can debate, argue, and be bettered for having done so — there are a plethora of ideas and solutions that are dismissed solely because they carry with them the title “liberal,” “conservative,” “Republican,” or “Democrat.” There used to be a saying, “To be able to disagree without being disagreeable.” That’s what I hope we can return to. One of my largest concerns is that with groups like the Tea Party on the right and numerous comments and dismissive political motions from politicians on the left, we’re going to watch the country split along ever growing ideological fault lines. This country does pretty alright — at least in hindsight — when we (are sometimes forced to) work together: look at the Clinton administration.

  2. b.crusherman says:

    “Ashamed” appears to be the definition of being an American that you gave yourself. No matter how (from the left or the right) you look at the United States it is still the greatest nation God ever gave man, and as you also noted in your reply, you are glad to wake up in this country every morning. Being the imperfect nation is what has made the US great. Trying to be everything for everybody will be our downfall. The Tea Party movement is the push against this governments rush to do everything for everybody. If 47% of the population don’t pay Federal Income Tax, at some point the other 53% may get a bit miffed. When government becomes owner or part owner in business, it has stepped out way beyond it’s intended function, folks will get miffed. If our leaders apologize for every miss deed we have ever done, some of us will get pissed.
    Instead of funding a “War on Ignorance” maybe a little self reliance, indivual responsibily and yes, get back to being more of a “David” and not “Goliath”….but that might mean not getting everything for everybody. It could mean you (we, all of us) may have to work harder and smarter to get our wants. We may fail, but get government out of the way so we can be free to do so.

  3. larsgarvey says:

    I am definitely glad to wake up every day in the United States as opposed to many of the other fates I may have had to endure, but I was also glad to wake up in Abingdon, England when I studied there, as I was happy to wake up in Stockholm, Sweden. America is a great nation — there is no denying that — but it is not the only nation on the planet where people can flourish. Sweden (as well as many of its Scandinavian neighbors) has taken in a large percentage of those fleeing from the Iraq War, one of the instances where I was “ashamed” of this country. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a murderer that needed to be stopped, but we invaded Iraq on faulty (and here I am being kind) intelligence.

    I understand that people are going to have their feathers ruffled by others not paying taxes, but taxes have dramatically fallen for a number of Americans since Obama took office — and if you don’t believe me, just check MSNBC’s take on Obama’s tax policies: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36355795/ns/politics/. If this isn’t sufficient, a thorough look at what he has done for the majority of tax payers should also help.

    Are things perfect in this country of ours? Of course not; not for those on the right or for those on the left. My sincere wish is that we start engaging each other and stop pulling away from each other — we need to meet in the middle, even if it becomes a bit of a battleground, instead of isolating ourselves on the peripheries.

    In many ways, I agree with your last statement — this country was founded on self-reliance (which is actually the title of one of my favorite writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson: http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm), and I think we could do very well if we became much more self-reliant. And I agree, this will mean “not getting everything for everybody.” My biggest issue with a lot of the far-right’s rallying cries is that they want the government (Big Brother) to make abortions and gay marriages illegal, but somehow still want Big Brother out of their lives altogether.

    If we got back to living our lives by example, and not requiring some sort of Moral Police Force, I would be perfectly happy.

  4. b.crusherman says:

    “Sweden (as well as many of its Scandinavian neighbors) has taken in a large percentage of those fleeing from the Iraq War, one of the instances where I was “ashamed” of this country.” When a people want to be free, they go west…. To America. This country makes the Europeans, and Scandinavian’s look totally weak in imagration policy. Look at the racial tensions over there. Just look at immigration to the US. (legal and illegal). Are you ashamed of our melting pot? Cubans, South Americans, Southeast Asians, Asians, Europeans, African….this is the ultimate destination for immigrants from anywhere in the world.
    Now Taxes…. wow! (Come on… MSMBC?? you can do better than that!Dig man dig) Fallen? Revenue has fallen because there are no jobs! In 2001 we actually lost more jobs during that recession than this one, the only difference, more jobs were created than lost. 2006 is the year Democrates took control of Congress. 2008 Progressive Socialist took everything. You want to increase the tax revenue…cut taxes! Allow the private sector to work. Government has never produce a thing to make money…. “Socialism is great, until you run out of everyone elses money” (M. Thatcher). Worked for Kennedy, Regan, and Bush… it would work for Obama.
    Now the rallying cry….moral issues? Hmmmm. Death to the innocent… who would kill their own children? The right to choose? Sounds great until you choose life (or any conservative value) then your a backward thinker,
    …. women have a right to choose, babies have no choice. Their parents are their only protection. GAYs? They are folks like anyone else, why should they receive special status? Live together, love, whatever. Marriage is a sacred bond… Man and Woman. Now this trends towards the religous… we have gained a lot from faith.
    When Big Brother starts cramming these types of issues down our throats, then the government has become tyrannical. You need to figure out right vs. wrong. Good vs. Bad. Not just…. whatever makes you happy, this is easiest…. Get some “nads” man. The best things in life come with hard work. As the great libs of the 60’s always said….”question authority man”. I say question yourself and authority, then make it plain where you stand.

  5. larsgarvey says:

    I appreciate your candor.

    You might want to check the numbers on how many Iraqis have been allowed to “go west” since the war, and how many had to “go north” to Scandinavia. And having lived in England and Sweden for almost a decade, I saw no real differences in levels of racism. There are racists everywhere, but I saw a lot of tolerance and respect when I lived in Europe, though, to be fair, I saw more intolerance than I expected to in Sweden — it was still far less than I see here in the States.

    As for the recent tax policies, most of what I’ve read suggests at decreased taxes for the majority of working Americans, hence the satirical tone some have taken with regards to the Tea Party, named after a group rallying around unfair tax laws. Since you don’t seem to enjoy my links, I’ll let you Google about. And, to be honest, I may not be as informed as I should be — all I know is that my tax refund was surprisingly generous this year.

    My values are pretty established, as I am sure is the case for you, so we should probably leave them as they lay. While I may not share the same view of marriage as you, I understand and respect where you are coming from — and sometimes that is the best we can hope for when coming from different sides of the ideological and political spectrum.

    Thanks again for commenting and debating in a lively and respectful way.

  6. b.crusherman says:

    Good respectful debates = better ideas, and understanding.

  7. b.crusherman says:

    Just a side on taxes, ” Ryan Ellis, tax policy director of Americans for Tax Reform, who noted that only one third of the stimulus package is tax cuts, the rest is government spending without revenue to match it. The recently passed health care law also will eventually lead to higher taxes for middle-income families, Ellis said.”

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