July 4, 2005 – A man without a country

Whiskey Bar’s ‘keep visits Jimmy John’s Hot Dog Stand

I’m not a big fan of patriotism, at least not as most Americans understand the word. Patriotism is just another word for nationalism, and nationalism in my book is the modern equivalent of the black plague — an incubator of xenophobia at its least, a killer of millions at its absolute worst. And we’ve seen enough of the absolute worst over the past century to understand where nationalism could ultimately lead: the extinction of the entire human race.

Still, there are emotional attachments to home — to the familiar, the dear, the remembered — that go deeper than the intellect and pull harder than reason. Tribal loyalty is a powerful thing. On the morning of 9/11, I was as much a patriot as any man or woman alive, and would have greedily torn Bin Ladin to pieces with my own hands to avenge “our” dead.

But hatred and revenge are patriotism’s curse, not its justification. When Lincoln spoke of “mystic chords of memory” and urged his countrymen to put their common heritage ahead of their political divisions, he wasn’t appealing to their tribal loyalties, but their loyalty to an ideal: democratic government under the law. If American patriotism has any claim to be an exception to the general run of blind national chauvinism, it has to be found in that idea. If America is to be an exceptional nation, one worth glorifying above all others, it has to be because of the quality of her justice and the strength of her democracy — not because of the language she speaks, or the God she worships or the color of her skin. And not because of her material wealth or military power or imperial ambitions. Least of all those.


But the America on Jimmy John’s walls, while far from perfect, at least believed in the possibility of its own improvement. It accepted — if only out of lingering memories of the Great Depression — the need for a certain degree of social justice. It distrusted wealth and corporate power and believed, perhaps too much, in the ability of government to help the little guy. It actually thought democracy could work.

Most of all, Jimmy John’s America was a country where injustice and corruption and the arrogance of power occasionally ran into organized opposition — and sometimes even lost. It was the country of Martin Luther King and Marcus Raskin and Saul Alinksy and Caesar Chavez, of Students for a Democratic Society (the pre-Weatherman version) and the March on Washington (all of them), of Pete Seeger and Earth Day, of Stonewall and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Those people, too, believed democracy could work — if it was given a little push.

But that America is either dead or dying, with the remains memorialized on restaurant walls, or eulogized in essays like this one — like fossilized insects frozen in amber. Looking through the window of Jimmy John’s, I could almost see the mega mall just down the highway, with its chain restaurants and fast food franchises — the leading edge of a wave of development moving north towards the outer suburbs of Philly. And I realized it won’t be too long before the wave hits, and Jimmy John’s is bulldozed to make room for a Burger King or a MacDonalds.

You could say the same thing about democracy. America doesn’t really believe in democracy any more. It’s just a slogan used to sell unpopular wars, or justify the greasy manuevers of a corrupt political machine. America doesn’t want social justice, either — just a few extra crumbs from the tables of the wealthy. It worships power and material success and expects those who don’t to hold their tongues. It hears what it wants to hear and sees what it wants to see, and it has a corporate media establishment increasingly dedicated to ensuring that it always does.

[…] I can see the America that I used to know vanishing before my eyes. And so is the only thing — the ideal of democratic government under the law — that could justify being a “patriotic” American.

Without that ideal, patriotism is just tribalism: the mindless glorification of “us” and the demonization of “them.” And in the case of America, “us” includes a long list of right-wing idiots who I feel absolutely no affinity with or loyalty to…

What a sad and all too real expression of American disillusionment and despair about the future. Read the whole thing. We are lost in so many ways. I really fear what this can lead to … is leading to. I don’t pray, but I come pretty damn close when I think about the war being waged against democratic ideals across the planet.

What will become of justice, when it only exists as an empty word on plastic trinkets sold at Wal-Mart?