For holiday reading I have been thumbing through Sarah Palin’s two memoirs: Going Rogue: An American Life and her more recent America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag. For extra kicks I have been reading Bill O’Reilly’s Pinheads and Patriots: Where you stand in the Age of Obama.
We have all been told by some killjoy never to judge a book by its cover but with these three tomes who can resist? Going Rogue has Palin in rouge on the cover with an unmissable flag pin on her jacket. America by Heart has Palin on the cover wearing a flag pin and a stars ’n stripes bracelet. On the cover of Pinheads and Patriots we have headshots of O’Reilly facing Obama set on top of – you guessed it – an American flag.
According to Palin and O’Reilly, America is facing an identity crisis, no longer just a cultural war for the heart and soul of the country or a political crisis, but a crisis over the goodness of America itself. The best way to stare down this crisis is to affirm one’s commitment and love of the United States.
Why the crisis and why now? I am tempted to say this crisis is totally manufactured by the Republican Party and its supporters and that the two biggest pinheads on the planet are Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin, but I won’t get drawn into such name calling and the politics of polarization so let’s take these writers seriously for a second.
In fact, the crisis of American patriotism has been a recurrent theme throughout the last 100 years of US politics. From the early twentieth century through to the 1960s, it was American communists (reds!) who were seen as the greatest threat to American life and liberty. This threat was wildly exaggerated as communist and socialist politics have always been very marginal in American life.
In the 1960s a much larger movement emerged in opposition to the Vietnam War and it too questioned American patriotism. On its more extreme days, the political arm of this anti-war movement burnt the American flag, and called American soldiers “killers” and the police “pigs”. Counter cultural hipsters wore American flag shorts and poked fun at all sorts of traditional American mores.
The revenge of the nerds of this period has been long and pretty successful. A conservative backlash against, and caricaturing of, this behaviour is still very much part of Republican party politics today. In Going Rogue Palin describes an appearance on Saturday Night Live. They did a song called the “Palin rap” which has the line: “You say Obama, I say Ayres! Obama…Ayres! Obama…Ayres!” William Ayres, who was a prominent member of the anti-war groups SDS and the Weathermen, was a neighbour of Barack Obama’s in Chicago and was often described incorrectly by conservatives during the 2008 campaign as an influential personal friend and adviser to the Obamas.
In the post-Vietnam era Ronald Reagan was most noted for playing the patriotism card, that is until September 11, 2001. It was pretty obvious and apparent that most Americans and most non-Americans were appalled by the terrorist attacks on Washington DC and New York.
Unlike the Vietcong, Fidel Castro, or even the Soviet Union, very few Americans had any sympathy for the methods and claims of al Qaeda; however, American conservatives have made much of internal disloyalty (pinheadery in O’Reilly’s binary worldview) since 9/11. This can only be called paranoid or totally contrived because it is completely disproportionate to the internal threat faced.
Patriotism has often emerged as a regular theme in America’s electoral politics with the Republicans often implying Democratic candidates such as Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Obama and even war veterans like Max Cleveland were not true patriots.
John Kerry suffered attacks from the Swift boat Veterans for Truth and others to such an extent that he began his 2004 convention speech with a military salute and the words: “I am John Kerry and I am reporting for duty.” The corresponding Republican convention was an ultra-patriotic frenzy with the speeches drawing regular crowd chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.”
The most frenzied moment was not during George W. Bush’s acceptance speech, but during Governor Schwarzenegger’s speech. Arnie’s speech was a classic in the American Exceptionalist genre: kid from Austria makes it big time in America. Those who know his movies would hardly be surprised by the fact that Arnie had all the clichés down pat. But, as with America in general, things are not quite so simple.
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