The sad thing about the attacks on Senator Obama for things said by his wife and by his pastor is that attention was paid to them by anyone except Jon Stewart. It was as if the Senator were being pilloried for consorting with persons who claimed that grass is green and — the horror, the horror! — that water runs downhill.
Reverend Wright and Michelle Obama may, for all I know, harbor private beliefs as evil as those which lurk in the minds of Richard Cheney, Osama bin Laden or, back in the day, Vlad the Impaler.
If so, however, the fact has not been reported. What has been reported proves only that both the Obama pastor and the Obama wife are guilty of truth-telling in the first degree. For example, anyone who believes that American foreign policy bore no causal relation to the 9/11 attacks is simply a fool.
And as to Michelle Obama’s deplorably recent feelings of pride in her country, I will refer you, as Judy in Canada has referred me, to this efficient evisceration of the whole issue by Rick Salutin of The Globe and Mail. I’ll add only this from Edmund Burke: ‘For us to love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”
The problem of patriotism really comes down to one question: Are patriots permitted to be critical of their nation, or must they be proud and unquestioning at all times? Once that’s answered, the puzzles dissolve.
Take Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, who said: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback..” That’s Position 1. Candidate John McCain’s wife, Cindy, took Position 2: “I have and always will be proud of my country.”
It’s odd that no reporters put Cindy McCain on the spot, named dubious things the U.S. has done, like its genocidal assault on aboriginals, and asked: Are you proud of that? Michelle Obama is the one they keep saying has dug her and her husband a big anti-American hole, one she still hasn’t got past.
But under Position 1 — criticism allowed — her words imply she is a true patriot, and one with a generous spirit. She didn’t wait for solutions to what presumably blocked her pride in the past: like failure to deal with the ongoing problems of race in the U.S. She was ready to be proud on the fairly flimsy basis of reactions to her husband’s campaign. She’s not just a patriot, she’s an optimistic one.
Under Position 1, the patriot test is: Does she continue to want to be proud of her nation, while demanding it live up to standards. By that test, she is a patriot with no hole to climb out of, and so probably is her pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has taken a lot more stick than she has.
What did he say that anyone could object to on patriotic grounds — that the chickens are coming home to roost in events like 9/11? That’s just foreign policy analysis, stated metaphorically. You can disagree, but it isn’t unpatriotic. Or: “The government ... wants us to sing God Bless America. No, no, no, God damn America ... for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.” That is utterly in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
According to the Hebrew prophets, God consigned his beloved chosen people to exile for allowing social injustice, allying with evil nations — i.e., shabby foreign policy — and religious infidelity. (The black church in the U.S. has always had a preferential option for the Old Testament parts of the Bible.)
Another way to put Position 1 is: You cannot say, Blessed is the nation, unless you can also say, Cursed is the nation — they go together under love of nation. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote: “There can be no patriotism without permanent opposition and criticism.”
She said that in 1963, under fire from other Jews for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. She was a lifelong Zionist but critical of the direction Zionism had taken. In fact, Jews often split into the two positions over loyalty to Israel. It’s odd how that, too, has now been woven into U.S. politics. Candidates for president are required to show unquestioning allegiance to Israel as much, or more, as to the U.S. The same is becoming true in Canada.
Of course, we also have unique Canadian versions of unthinking patriotism. When the “loyal” opposition criticized the handover of detainees by our forces in Afghanistan despite possible torture, Stephen Harper and his instruments replied: Why do they criticize what our troops do? Why do they care more about the Taliban than our brave Canadian soldiers? Got that — it’s unpatriotic to ask if our country did anything to be ashamed of?
Hannah Arendt also wrote about Judah Magnes, a Zionist pioneer and founder of the Hebrew University. “Being a Jew and a Zionist, he was simply ashamed of what Jews and Zionists were doing.” The sense of shame is what can save the honour of the group and the nation. It is what Position 1 patriots provide. If there are no patriots capable of shame for what is done in the nation’s name, so there is only praise and pride everywhere, then patriotism easily slides into stupidity and worse.