Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My slutty American sister

I’ve never been much of a patriot.

Okay, now that I’ve said that and my chances of ever becoming president of the United Sates have been blown to smithereens, let me go a bit further and be really honest:

I’ve often felt that patriotism is the playground of mindless idiots.

I don’t mean the kind of patriotism that leads someone to join the armed forces and go overseas—I actually find that quite admirable, truly brave, actually, and I’m not the sort of person to use words like “bravery,” “courage,” or “vitamin supplements” lightly.

No, I’m talking about the sort of patriotic idiocy that causes a person to stand up at a 4th of July celebration and march in place, waving a little flag on a wooden stick, feeling your chest swell with pride as somewhere a band plays “Stars and Stripes” (I hate that song) or “America the Beautiful” (love that one). I’m talking about the sort of patriotic fervor that causes a person to assume that US healthcare is the best in the world, when in fact it’s not. Or the sort of patriotism that causes a person to get enraged anytime someone questions their country, or suggests that maybe, just maybe, the US might have made a mistake in the past—or is perhaps making one now.

That kind of patriotism really bugs me. More accurately, it insults me, the same way I’m insulted by Big Broadway musicals full of major chords and predictably melancholy ballads; the same way I’m insulted by the very existence of boy bands singing shallow songs that rhyme, or by novels by the guy that wrote “The Notebook” and that other guy who wrote “The Bridges of Madison County.” These things, like shallow, hollow, superficial patriotism, ask you to sacrifice nothing and think not even a single thought while filling you with emotions that can often sway you away from the sorts of complex thinking that are necessary in a—duh—complex world.

Now before you go calling me Godless and anti-American, let me make two points and make them very clear: first, I got my politics at bible camp. You want to talk about Jesus? Fine. My vision of Jesus is less that of a guy who makes me all warm and fuzzy and superior, than that of a guy who walks into a room and goes straight to the outsiders, making them—and not the rich or beautiful or connected or mindlessly spiritual—feel loved and valued.

You want to talk about God? Dandy. My vision of God is of a guy (or girl, or hermaphrodite—wow, did I really just call God a hermaphrodite?) who cares less about ideology and more about a woman weeping over a baby whose aorta has been sliced with shrapnel because some idiot somewhere decided they were sick of Saddam Hussein’s ugly mug and (unquestionably) annoying habit of thumbing his nose at us.

Hmmm. What matters more to God? Ideology? Or a parent’s love for a child?

Second, I want to make the point that the sort of patriotism I’m deriding here is the same sort of crapola I saw in the 1980s when I visited the (then) Soviet Union to receive my training to be a spy and a traitor to my country –wait, did I just say that out loud?

Seriously, though, if you’ve never been to a totalitarian state where every billboard features a picture of the glorious leader or the glorious founder or the glorious leader’s/founder’s glorious shiatsu, then honey, you’ve never seen patriotism at it’s glorious best. Or worst. Most mindless. Or—whatever. Because seriously? That kind of patriotism? That kind of manipulation of the emotions to make you feel good and full and like you’re part of something grand? That’s what manipulative people (say, ad men and women) do to make you forget how hollow and meaningless your life actualy is—and how unwilling they are to make it better.

So I hate patriotism. Get it? Good, because here’s a story.

Back in the 1850s when I was just a teenager, I had a friend named Mike Bushnell (not his real name) who, somewhat bowed legs aside, was nothing exceptional. His older sister, though? Mandy? Mandy was—how shall we say this?—very very “popular.” Very.

Everyone knew it. The high school principal knew it, the teachers knew it, my mother’s bridge group knew it, the news anchors up in Green Bay knew it. Mike Bushnell knew it. I mean, geez, it was all but plastered on the sides of buses.

Anyhow, it wasn’t uncommon for Mike to talk trash about his sister, calling her a slut, a sleazebag, a walking, talking, breathing—well, I can’t really go any further than that, because this is a family site and as it is the Fulbright people are meeting tomorrow to discuss relocating me (Trzkystan is supposed to be nice, right?). Let’s just say that Mike was an imaginative guy with a vivid vocabulary.

And he used it often. “What a sleazebag!” he said one day when we were eating saltine crackers on his back porch and his sister just happened to wander by carrying a book (something by Nabokov, I think).

“Yeah,” I said, trying not to wheeze crumbs all over my favorite Sean Cassidy t-shirt “What a slut.”

In an instant I was on my back, my skull throbbing and a pair of fists poised inches from my already bleeding nose. “Take it back!” Mike hollered, spit flying from the gap where they’d pulled two teeth to make his braces fit.

“What?” I wailed. “Take what back?”

Pop! Pop! My skull slammed into the wooden deck again, twice in rapid succession.

“Take it back,” he said again, quieter this time.

“Okay,” I muttered, trying to breath through the flow of blood and snot. “Okay, I take it back.” Even though I wasn’t entirely sure what he was talking about.

When we were both up again, he handed me an old rag from the garage and took a look at his handy work. “Wow. You thought your nose was big before.”

I nodded, tried to laugh. More than anything, though, I was confused. “What the hell?” I said after a minute or two of trying to clean my face.

“Huh?” He was already thinking about something else, I could tell.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Everyone knows your sister is a—“ he gave me a quick look, and I stuttered. “A—you know. That guys like her.”

“Yeah?” he said. His eyes had narrowed.

I took a step back, dropped the rag in case I had to make a quick exit. Then finally I spit out: “You call her a slut all the time!”

“I know,” he said, then turned back to his copy of Spiderman. “But she’s my sister.”

All of which has what to do with patriotism? Consider this:

In the run-up to the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Hong Kong papers were full of the pride Hong Kong people felt over their Chinese heritage. Many of these stories eventually revealed a typical HK ambivalence about the massive dictatorship that would eventually strip Hong Kong citizens of their right to voice dissent or surf for porn on the internet, but many of them did not, trumpeting the accomplishments of the PRC, particularly relative to other superpowers, past and present.

Say, for example, the US.

Some of these stories were just plain stupid. One idiot from some think tank trumpeted the fact that, yes, socialism might have been a really bad idea, but a centralized government that stripped individuals and industries of the right to make their own decisions about what to produce, and where, and when, and for how much? Sheer genius, according to this guy. “While the west wallows in the worst recession in 60 years, and Obama and congress can’t even pass health care reform, China is producing more goods, and better goods, every day.”

Then, too, there were the stories about all the missiles and weaponry the People’s Liberation Army had accumulated. “Much of which,” said more than one story in the press, “can reach the United States.” And this is news? Like, can’t most eight-year-olds these days make a missile that can do that?

But some of the stories were less idiotic and just plain, flat out sobering in a depressing, gosh, maybe I really am going bald, kind of way. Like the one about how the International Monetary Fund had said that China would be the nation to lead the world out of this latest recession. Or the other one about how China’s GDP had grown by a healthy 8% the last thirty years, was currently growing at 10% a year, and, if it maintained a mere 7% per year, would surpass the US by the year 2030.

Stuff like that just depressed me. And frankly, ticked me off just a little bit. I mean, man, the US government is tripping over its own feet on healthcare, despite the fact that it’s common knowledge that exorbitant costs are holding back corporations and causing industries to move overseas. And meanwhile the guys in the insurance business are using Benjamins to line the bird cage.

This isn't the first time I’ve experienced emotions like this while living overseas. Back in the eighties, when I was living in England and Reagan was running up the national debt and walking tough like a cowboy, there were times I would sitting around the college bar having a pint and someone would say, “Crikey,”—because you know, all English people say ‘crikey’—“that Reagan bloke is a right royal wanker, in’nt he?” And almost immediately I’d find myself defending a man I’d voted against once and called an idiot a million times.

Now, living in China for all practical purposes, I find myself occasionally feeling equally defensive about the US, much to my horror. After all, I pride myself on being able to criticize my country, on my ability to look objectively at her flaws and to seek ways to solve her problems. I’ve often said that the greatest sign of respect I can offer my students is to hold them to high standards. Isn’t the same true of my country?

Maybe so, but that didn’t keep me from getting really snotty on the 60th Anniversary, especially when they showed this tank or that soldier or these troops marching past the review stands in Beijing.

“Oh sure,” I’d mutter at the television on the MTR (we don’t have a TV in our flat,, so I spent the day riding the train and swearing under my breath). “Oh sure, show off your tanks all you want, but who d’ya think’s better at croquet, huh? Just answer that question, why don’t you?”

Or: “Yeah, so you’ve got 1,000 really hot looking supermodels you can dress up to look like soldiers, but we’ve still got Barbara Bush, and there’s no taking that away!”

All of that said, though? The truth of the matter was this: as much as I knew what I was thinking and feeling and saying was kind of stupid, there was a part of me that really did feel like the US is better than the PRC. Yeah, I know it sounds hokey and schmaltzy and other words ending in “y” that have been made up, but there it is. And what it came down to was this:

When the PRC got together to celebrate their birthday, it was all about the weapons and the guns and the marching and soldiers. All about the force and the power and the showing of strength. All about money and the government. Non-military weren’t even allowed into Tiananmen Square for the parade--they had to stay home and watch it on TV.

And in the US, when we celebrate our birthday? It’s all about junior high marching bands playing “Copacabana” out of tune, and eight-year-old girls in hoop skirts tap dancing, and old men in VA hats waving from the backs of station wagons. And when the parade is over, we all go home and gather with our families.

Geez, I can’t even believe how dorky this sounds, but there you have it: given the choice between monetary stability and military might, and going home for a half-raw, semi-burnt hotdog and lime Jell-O with pineapples in it, I’ll take the Jell-O every time.

What a doof, huh? I mean seriously, how lame can you get, especially for a guy who just spent 700 words railing about mindless, boob-brained, sentimental patriotism.

But you know what?

She’s my sister.

Note: This post, even more than most of my posts, is my own personal, stupid, uniformed opinion, and in no way reflects the views of the Fulbright organization, the American government, or those sexy Chinese soldiers in their white go-go boots.


Anonymous said...

Politics at Bible Camp? Huh. All I got was a Betty's Bar Tshirt.

Nice post. Who's Mike Bushnell?

Paul Hanstedt said...

Is that PS? E-mail me at my school account, and I'll tell you about MB, as well as some other interesting stuff!