For What It’s Worth

“There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear . . . .” — Stephen Stills, Buffalo Springfield


If you were of age in the late 60s you can probably hear that song in your head, the ringing notes of the opening bars suggestive both of hope and apprehension as Stephen Stills’ voice, bluesy with a mocking edge to it, drew us into the images. It became something of an anthem as the mass protests against the Vietnam War spread from city to city across America. 

I always associate that song with the 4th of July, perhaps because, inevitably, the 4th is about massive crowds—at least it is where I live, near Washington, D.C.—and because if there’s a protest to be writ large it will happen on the national stage of the Mall in the heart of D.C. 

It’s been years since I actually went down to the Mall for the Fourth of July celebrations. When I first moved out here from California in 1981, fresh out of graduate school, to take a teaching position, I did the usual things for a newcomer which included joining 250,000 people, the National Orchestra, fireworks (‘bombs bursting in air’ and ‘the rockets’ red glare’), sometimes the Beach Boys, parades, and speeches by the usual suspects — all of us basted and cooked to perfection in D.C.’s 100+ degree fire pits. If you do that a couple of seasons you develop a lingering suspicion that you’re just one of thousands of extras in an apocalyptic thriller movie. The thin veneer of civilization peels back in your waking nightmare as you imagine the ultimate fireworks of nuclear holocaust opening above the Washington Monument. 

So you stay home the following year and find you do not miss the hour-long wait at the subway station, moving a foot at a time toward the abattoir deep underground, all in lock-step with the thousands of sodden, hungry, and beaten citizens on this holiest of civic holidays. I exaggerate, of course, but only slightly: you may enjoy conjecturing on which parts of the narrative cross the line of sensible imagination.

But whether I stay or go to Fourth of July public rituals my dilemma remains the same: I do not know how to act patriotically on that day or any other day. I left Canada at the age of five in the company of grandparents who were headed for teaching positions in California. My memories of Canada are pleasant but my knowledge of its politics and culture is slight. Most of my life has been spent in America, with a year and some summers in Britain, and another year in British Columbia. And yet I remain a Canadian citizen and have never voted in this country. 

Assimilated to Northern California culture at an impressionable age, I nevertheless found no ground upon which to stand, and thus I remain oddly suspended, neither fully Canadian by geographical and cultural immersion nor American by citizenship and pride. When I traveled in Europe on my Canadian passport in the early 70s, a maple-leaf stitched proudly on my backpack, I received encouraging glances and the offer of conversation. When it was discovered that I was Canadian but lived in America, curiosity turned to something close to envy, although a lecture on the failings of American foreign policy was sure to follow. 

I was never sure how to respond. Like many middle-class American kids I had my views on the war, which ran the gamut from naive to ignorant. But of the  moral darkness of the venture I was deeply convinced and have found no reason since to revise that view. What I was naive about were the reasons why boys my age were drafted and why some even volunteered. As the war dragged on it became more clear that disproportionate numbers of poor whites, blacks, and Hispanics were being drafted. That seemed wrong to me, but I don’t think I could have explained why at the time. What genuinely puzzled me was why anyone would volunteer. In the years that followed I spoke to some who had stepped up with pride, served as officers, and returned home feeling betrayed by the American public. They had been told they were fighting for freedom. A lot of Americans saw them as baby-killers. 

When we stood for the pledge of allegiance in school I did not recite it nor place my hand over my heart. Dimly, I understood that would be somehow wrong, although my reticence was sometimes taken for defiance. When I saw the flag unfurled, waving in the breeze or heard the national anthem, I did not tear up nor bow my head in gratitude. The Star Spangled Banner seemed simply unfortunate, the lamest excuse for a call to patriotism that I could imagine. Nobody could sing it well and the only version I could stand was Jimi Hendrix’s fuzzed-up and melancholy riff. 

Yet, the first time I landed on British soil during a torrential downpour at Gatwick Airport in 1971, I felt like I’d finally come home. Raised by British grandparents, reading Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples under the covers at night, and marching with the hobbits through Middle-earth had conditioned me for a kind of naturalized citizenship. I slipped into it easily and naturally, feeling  less the outsider as the country cousin come to visit. As for national anthems, I found ‘Rule Britannia’ quaintly endearing, “God Save the Queen” serious and moving, but it was “Jerusalem,” sung at football matches and other public gatherings, that brought a tear to my eyes. Whether rendered by the pure voices of English choirboys or thundered through by English rockers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Blake’s vivid verses and imagery brought me close to pride of country.  

That may be the closest I get emotionally to patriotism, an anomaly that I have to chuckle over. Born in Canada, raised in America, with my heart attached to a misty Avalon, I realize that I am everywhere and nowhere. Perhaps the difficulty lies in the fact that patriotism, almost anywhere in the world—and especially, it seems, in America—is joined at the hip with war. Thus, to question American actions in the world is to dishonor the sacrifice of American soldiers. Since wars these days are marketed and sold through sophisticated advertising campaigns, and military objectives are subordinated to political imperatives, patriotism becomes an accessory worn on the sleeve, designed to quickly identify whose side we’re on. Remember when everyone clipped American flags to their cars after 9/11? There was a certain amount of nervousness if you were the first on your block to take your flag off. 

I don’t have any reservations about what this country has done for me. I admire American energy and imagination, its willingness to thumb its nose at centuries of aristocracy and privilege of lineage. Most of all, I love the straight forward, clear-eyed pragmatism that so often gets things done. But America, historically speaking, is a teenager— impetuous, brash, arrogant, and ignorant of many things. It is quick to seize on the latest fashion, be it technology, religion or idiom. There are times when you think, “I can’t take this kid anywhere!” It has the attention span of a squirrel, the narcissism of a Chihuahua, and the gratitude of a cat. 

That being said, it also has the best mission statement and corporate vision in the world. Alongside the fact that the country was founded on the economic necessities of slavery, the men who built the Constitution out of parts they’d filched from all over created the motherboard of freedom. It works well, really well, when we keep the hardware clean and the software—this wonderful spirit of inventiveness—free of ideological viruses. 

So I’ve found a type of ethical patriotism within which I can live. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy this is one in which “the patriot would take pride when the country does what is right. But her patriotism would be expressed, above all, in a critical approach to her country and compatriots: she would feel entitled, and indeed called, to submit them to critical moral scrutiny, and to do so qua patriot.”

It’s been tried before by many people, some of whom died because of it and others who simply and quietly live it out every day. But as Tennyson said in Ulysses, “Some work of noble note, may yet be done/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.”

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