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Contentless Patriotism, Reprise

I heard about this, but only watched it just now. Here’s Sharon Angle, belting out Lee Greenwood’s "God Bless the USA."

I didn’t make it all the way through. I didn’t need to. I’m familiar with the song, and I’m familiar with why Angle wanted to sing it and why nobody apparently tried to convince her that it was not a good idea.

It’s the kind of "contentless patriotism" that’s obligatory on the right. Here are a couple more examples, one sincere one tongue-in-cheek.

Here’s Michael Berube’s definition.

I’m familiar with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” of course.  We all are� it’s been inescapable for twenty years.  Or so I thought.  It turns out, instead, that I somehow have managed to escape hearing the intro and the first verse until just this past month, when the song was used as part of Jamie’s fifth-grade graduation video (as the background music for his school’s visit to Fort Robideau).  That’s no doubt because, as a paid-up member of the latt�-drinking liberal cultural �lite, I tend to avoid social occasions and gatherings in which the song is played and sung along to.

And needless to say, I think the song is odious almost beyond measure.  That’s not because I’m a paid-up member of the latte-drinking liberal cultural elite who sneers at my fellow citizens’ simple, heartfelt expressions of patriotism; it’s because the song’s version of patriotism is completely contentless.  Two verses and three choruses, and Mr. Greenwood couldn’t find a single reason to love the U.S.A.?  Yeah, yeah, I know, pride, pride, freedom, freedom: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” But free to do what?  To fire employees without cause, thanks to the at-will employment doctrine?  To abolish the estate tax?  To hold up a sign saying that Matthew Shepherd got what he deserved?  Or to protest foolish wars, march for civil rights, and support the right of kids with Down syndrome to be educated in regular classrooms where they can go to visit Fort Robideau with their nondisabled peers?  “God Bless the U.S.A.” doesn’t say, and that’s what makes it such a perfect emblem of a certain kind of right-wing contentless patriotism, the kind of patriotism that supports the troops by flying flags from cars while supporting a President who leads the troops off to needless slaughter and then cuts their veterans’ benefits.  Had Greenwood said anything about that freedom� “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free of all taxes on my estate of $36 million,” or “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free to fight for the right to register Mississippi’s black voters in the face of murderous right-wing opposition"� one imagines that his song would be a good deal less popular.

And it’s something they consistently demand from everyone else too.

Too often, when some of who have seen America fail to live up to what it promises to be on paper — and seen it finally coaxed and cajoled doing so after some time — give voice to that experience, first our love of country is questioned. Then, soon after, we’re told how to love America.

Main thought. Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama’s problem. America is Mr. Obama’s problem. He has been tagged as a snooty lefty, as the glamorous, ambivalent candidate from Men’s Vogue, the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness. Fine, good. But has he ever gotten misty-eyed over … the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter’s Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There’s gold in that history.

John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa’s knee. Mrs. Clinton learned at least its importance in her long slog through Arkansas, circa 1977-92.

Mr. Obama? What does he think about all that history? Which is another way of saying: What does he think of America? That’s why people talk about the flag pin absent from the lapel. They wonder if it means something. Not that the presence of the pin proves love of country – any cynic can wear a pin, and many cynics do. But what about Obama and America? Who would have taught him to love it, and what did he learn was loveable, and what does he think about it all?

Another challenge. Snooty lefties get angry when you ask them to talk about these things. They get resentful. Who are you to question my patriotism? But no one is questioning his patriotism, they’re questioning its content, its fullness. Gate 14 has a right to hear this. They’d lean forward to hear.

Most often, this comes from someone who doesn’t live in our America. And of course, whether they know it or not, they are really telling us how to love their America, demanding that it be our America, and that we love it their way. Not to put too fine a point on it, but do note what the examples from Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column — the Wright brothers, George Washington, and Henry Ford among others — have in common. And then ask why it is preferable that Barrack Obama get “misty-eyed” over them instead of Americans whose strivings made his life and his candidacy possible, or by Michelle Obama must get “misty-eyed” over the same rather than the father whose strivings made it possible for her story to happen?

And why is it assumed that love of that America cannot be commuted to the America that made possible the strivings of so many, strivings that lead to not only to civil rights movement, the womens’ movement, and all the other progressive movements that — when others were “standing athwart history yelling Stop!’” — pushed of forwards into a present that has seen historic candidacies not dreamed of at the nation’s founding?

In one sense, Noonan is right, it’s not actually the patriotism of progressive Americans that’s being called into question. It’s the content of that patriotism that’s questioned by some because its context is not their America. What’s demanded, in the guise of questions about flag lapel pins, is what Michael Berube once astutely defined as contentless patriotism.

This is just another poorly sung chorus of the same old thing. Maybe that’s why it’s not pulling ’em in like it used to.

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