Commentary Magazine


Whose Country ’Tis of Thee?

A friend’s son, 27 years old, has recently departed for Brazil, where, if things work out, he plans to spend the rest of his life. I have never met the young man, but from what I know about him, he is solid, congenial, gifted with good looks. He lived in Brazil for a year or so, working as a teacher of English, before making the decision to move there permanently. He bears not the least animus, or even the mildest of complaints, against the United States. He just happens to believe that life in Brazil is likely to be better for him than anything he expects to find in America.

The young, like the rich, are different from the rest of us. For one thing, today they stay young a lot longer. My friend’s son is unmarried, unclear about what will be his life’s work, free at 27 in ways that young men of my generation were not quite free at 17. At his age, I had four sons (two of them stepsons), a clear idea of what I wanted in life (to be a good writer), and not the least doubt about spending all my days (apart from occasional travel) in the United States. Having responsibility for four children at 27 may have been overdoing it, but most men and women of my generation felt as I did. We longed to get going in life, a life we assumed would be lived in the country of our birth, which, as good luck had it, was the freest, richest, most splendid country in the world.

I wrote to my friend to ask if his son was ready to give up his American citizenship. Being an American, it occurred to me, probably doesn’t carry the same weight with his son’s generation as it did and does with his and mine. My friend wrote back that somehow or other our country lost his son and the rest of his generation. “All I can think of, and it’s misty as can be,” he wrote, “is that over the years, almost imperceptibly, the collective sensibility of the country has changed….It’s almost as if…some moment of ripeness passed. Somehow we have become unworthy of the country’s ideals….But I don’t think my son and his friends even think about such things at all.”

What has happened to change things, if changed they truly are? Is the country different? What has brought about this difference in point of view among the young? Is the lessening of national loyalties strictly an American or instead a global phenomenon? Why would one want not to remain a citizen of the United States, when vast numbers of people continue to risk everything to take up life here, legally as well as illegally?

What So Proudly We Hail, an anthology of American stories, speeches, and songs, is a book that indirectly yet pertinently addresses itself to such questions. The book’s three editors are people of intellectual accomplishment and high seriousness: Amy and Leon Kass are in the pantheon of great teachers at the University of Chicago, and Diana Schaub is a well-regarded political scientist. In the introduction, they do not say straight out but rather suggest that the United States has a patriotism problem. Patriotism may, in Dr. Johnson’s famous mot, “be the last refuge of a scoundrel,” but respectable patriotism is also the first requisite for a healthy nation. Their book is a high-grade, gentle, but firm goad to the kind of patriotism a country intent on greatness needs.

The editors have thought long about the American virtues, and they realize the dangers into which such virtues, exaggerated or even slightly distorted, can lapse. “The love of gain, encouraged by our polity,” they write in their introduction, “can produce a materialism that deadens the souls of its citizens and keeps them from thinking about life in other than economic and self-interested terms.” They note that “our tolerance, and even encouragement, of ethnic and religious pluralism is a great national strength, but it also poses a challenge for creating a deep national bond and spirit.”

Behind What So Proudly We Hail is the concern that America is slipping, that the country is no longer producing the sort of character in its citizens required to sustain the qualities conducive to the kind of honorable conduct that has made the nation great. “What, in the American Republic,” the editors ask, “will keep liberty from producing scoff-laws and libertines? What will keep the pursuit of gain from destroying generosity and charity? What will keep free speech civil, religious freedom tolerant, and the love of progress grateful for blessings received? What will enable a rights-loving nation to produce citizens who will choose gladly to do their duty—to their offspring, their neighbor, their community, their nation?”

No indoctrination into the American creed is attempted. The larger goal has been “to foster a deeper sense of American identity and contribute to forming the character needed for robust American citizenship and public life.” The editors hope instead that this character “can be fostered by looking into the multi-angled mirrors our finest authors provide, and by discovering in our reflections the richness and worth of American identity, character, and citizenship.”

To this end, What So Proudly We Hail includes elevating speeches and documents and bits of autobiography among the selections in the book, but short stories predominate. Before each selection, the editors set out the reasons for its presence and close with questions to which the selection gives rise. The selections themselves are subtle and serious. Yet can one acquire the qualities of good citizenship and mature patriotism through reading alone? A book of the quality of What So Proudly We Hail can doubtless reinforce and deepen citizenship and patriotism, but can it inspire them? In a famous maxim about writers, Madame de La Fayette wrote: “We give advice, we do not inspire conduct.”

_____________

The time and place in which a person is born has a lot to do with the kind of patriot he or she turns out to be. Born in 1937, I entered consciousness with World War II as the background, context, and dominant fact of life. Food and gasoline were rationed, air-raid drills were part of grammar-school days, newspapers and tinfoil were collected for what was known as “the war effort,” stamps were bought and pasted into books until they amounted to the $25 needed to purchase a war bond. In school we pledged allegiance every morning “to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” My father, himself too old to go to war, routinely picked up men in uniform—servicemen, they were called—hitchhiking or at bus stops, in our 1942 pale green Dodge, and entered into easy conservation with them. It was the patriotic thing to do.

The movies of those years seemed preponderantly war films, from sweet comedies such as See Here, Private Hargrove to action flicks such as First Yank in Tokyo. John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, John Lund, Robert Walker, John Hodiak, Robert Taylor, in leather flight jackets and 50-mission-crush officer’s caps, reinforced one’s sense of the heroism of our boys fighting the Axis on two fronts. In the neighborhood, up to the age of 10 or so, war games were as popular as baseball. If one lost in a choose-up, one had to play the part of a Nazi (“Achtung, Schweinhundt Amerikanisch”) or a Japanese soldier (“Die, Yankee dog!”), which meant that sooner or later one was machine-gunned or hand-grenaded and had to stage a slow and dramatic death.

This was a time when being patriotic didn’t require a second thought—it came with the territory, was automatic. America was in a righteous war against true barbarians; we had come to the aid of heroic England to save the world from vicious Nazism and, into the bargain, to rescue the Jewish people whom, still unconfirmed rumor had it, Adolf Hitler was systematically murdering.

“My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing….” One sang this song, and the National Anthem, and “America the Beautiful,” and all other patriotic songs with one’s hat off and one’s right hand over one’s heart, in full throat and with complete sincerity. World War II was perhaps the last time in the United States that patriotism was instinctual, uninflected with the least dubiety or irony.

The Cold War, though the stakes were no less high, was too abstract to evoke patriotism in the same way. It would be the putative cause of my being drafted at 22 and spending two years between 1958 and 1960 in the U.S. Army, all of it in the unenchanted lands of Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas. I was by this time a subscriber to Partisan Review, Dissent,
Commentary, and Encounter in England, and hence a liberal tending toward radicalism in my general political views. Yet I don’t recall feeling the least resentment about donating two years of my life as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army. Conscription was part of the price of being a male in America. Case closed.

While boredom is the reigning emotion in military life, there were compensating factors, among them gaining a broader view of my country through living in the same barracks with men I might otherwise never have met: Chester Cooke, a Christian Scientist from Kansas; Jack Langer, an American Indian from Idaho; Johnson Gates, a Negro from Detroit; Bobby Flowers, an Appalachian from Kentucky; and many more.

My first doubts about America, incurred at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s, were not political but cultural. The most impressive teachers I encountered there were Europeans, refugees who were, as was then said, Hitler’s gift to America. What they had to say, in classrooms or in lecture halls, seemed denser, deeper, in every way richer than the offerings of their American counterparts, who beside them appeared rather bush-league. At the University of Chicago I first began to sense that America was perhaps a cultural backwater.

In the 1950s, Europe had the better bricks—villas, castles, museums, ruins—and the greater artists and writers. In France, Sartre and Camus, Mauriac and Malraux were still at work, as was Pablo Picasso. English intellectual life—with such figures as Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper on the scene—seemed so much richer than ours. Evelyn Waugh was then a working novelist, and if E.M. Forster was not, he was still a presence, thought to be a classic, living out his days in adulation in rooms at King’s College, Cambridge. True, W.H. Auden had emigrated from England to live in New York. But T.S. Eliot had long before departed the United States for England. (Was there in this trade a player to be named later that we never received?)

Eliot left America for much the same reasons that Henry James had nearly half a century earlier: America, as James wrote, failed to provide “the denser, richer, warmer European spectacle” so much more fertile for the creation of sophisticated literary art. Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all found life in Europe more congenial to the artistic sensibility. Artists who could afford to live there tended to do so for as long as possible. To qualify as cultured meant one had to acquire the culture of Europe, and at firsthand. Without it one was a bit callow, underdeveloped—not to put too fine a point on it, a yokel. Had I been a young man with a trust fund behind him, who knows, I might be in Paris yet today, putting the finishing touches on my first volume of negligible verse.

I had, then, a slight cultural but not yet a political grudge against America. The cultural, though, can roll easily enough over to the political. Viewing the country through literary lenses, I came to see it as made up of two parts Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitts and Main Street conformists and one part H.L. Mencken’s Booboisie. America was essentially a middle-class country, and much of American writing was devoted to despising the supposedly drab middle class, which was deemed a frightful drag on the imagination and spirit. Let pass that I was myself entirely a child—and a quite happy one—of the middle class, and later I came to understand that without a solid middle class no large country in the modern world can hope to function successfully.

As someone who considered himself an intellectual, and aspired to be a writer, I didn’t really see a smooth entry for myself in American life. This nagging concern melded nicely with instruction I acquired when young from reading such professional intellectuals as Dwight Macdonald and Irving Howe, who held that it was the first axiom in the euclidean geometry of the intellectual to be always critical of one’s own country.

Plenty, certainly, there was to be critical about in the United States. The country was still entirely segregated in the South and far from hospitable to Negroes in the North. Anti-Semitism, in the form of university and professional-school quotas and real-estate restrictions, was still in official force. John Kenneth Galbraith and Michael Harrington published popular books on the wide disparities of income in the country.

Conventional politics—that between the two major parties, “Tweedledum and Tweedledumber,” as Dwight Macdonald called them—offered little in the way of hope. Adlai Stevenson, who was thought to be an intellectual of sorts, was soundly defeated by Dwight David Eisenhower in two presidential elections. During these campaigns, “egghead,” standing for intellectual, came into use as a term of unmitigated opprobrium. I recall not voting in 1960, my first presidential election, that between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, because I didn’t see much to choose between the two men. (For what it’s worth, I still don’t, and I wouldn’t vote for either man if he were running today.)

I began to think of myself as a radical. A radical, Daniel Bell liked to say, went to the root of the matter; radical was, in other words, a self-congratulatory badge, standing for deep thinker. In politics, I wasn’t deep, and I’m not sure I came anywhere near qualifying as a thinker, but I did honor the intellectual’s responsibility to keep a critical eye on my own country, to cut it as little slack as possible, to judge all its actions as guilty until proven innocent.

Sidney Hook and Arthur Koestler prevented me from ever being in thrall to Marxism. Their writings showed what a justification for torture and murder the Russians and Chinese had made of that meager body of ideas. I did, though, keep a soft spot in my heart for socialism; owing to a strong strain of Anglophilia, I was more attracted to it in its Fabian than European or American forms. That George Orwell, whom I much admired and who went to his death believing in socialism, called himself a socialist was an added inducement.

I never bothered to formulate a clear idea about how society ought to be organized. Even today I hold no strict theory of government. I believe with Churchill that democracy is the best of all bad forms of government; and while I think the same of capitalism (the best of all bad forms of economic arrangements), I do not believe, with Milton Friedman & Co., that untethered capitalism is the obvious and only answer to all economic questions.

In criticizing my own country, my argument used to be that the United States could be so much better than it was. This line continues on among radicals to this day. Todd Gitlin, in a recent eulogy of the old SDS leader Carl Oglesby published in the New Republic, wrote:  “No one I ever met loved America so much as to feel such anguish at what it was becoming.” Plus ça change….

Yet, despite all my canned opinions, my views, somehow, never lapsed into anti-Americanism. I never felt, as did Edmund Wilson, that between the Soviet Union and the United States there wasn’t all that much to choose. I always knew that there was plenty to choose between the two. The United States at its worst—the McCarthy Era, resulting in hundreds of people losing their jobs—was never to be compared with the Soviet Union, in whose gulags millions perished during the long span of Stalinist and post-Stalin rule.

The anti-American strain grew stronger in American life as the 1960s got well underway. Some Englishmen might hate Tories, some Frenchmen hate Socialists, all Italians hate Silvio Berlusconi, but no Englishmen were anti-English, no Frenchmen anti-French, no Italians anti-Italian. Only Americans, or a select cohort among them, had allowed themselves the privilege of despising their own country. From my days working as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica, I remember a coworker, who, after I had done him the most trivial favor—lighting his cigarette, providing him with a paperclip—would say, “Thanks. You’re a great American.” The joke here was that there are no great Americans, that the possibility for greatness in America was risible.

Not many of those who embraced anti-Americanism bothered, I suspect, to understand what it was they were opposed to. They might speak of an American plutocracy, or the country’s imperialist project, or its inherent bigotry, but, proud though they were (and remain) to consider themselves anti-American, they never bothered to define Americanism. Here is a good definition of it from Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter written in 1917:

Americanism means many things. It means equality of rights and therefore equality of duty and of obligation. It means service to our common country. It means loyalty to one flag, to our flag, the flag of all of us. It means on the part of each of us respect for the rights of the rest of us. It means that all of us guarantee the rights of each of us. It means free education, genuinely representative government, freedom of speech and thought, equality before the law for all men, genuine political and religious freedom, and the democratizing of industry so as to give at least a measurable quality of opportunity for all, and so as to place before us, as our ideal in all industries where this ideal is possible of attainment, the system of cooperative ownership and management, in order that the tool-users may, so far as possible, become the tool-owners. Everything is un-American that tends either to government by a plutocracy or government by a mob. To divide along the lines of section or cast or creed is un-American. All privileges based on wealth, and all enmity to honest men merely because they are wealthy, are un-American—both of them equally so. Americanism means the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and hardihood—the virtues that made America.

I would add only the element of optimism prevalent in American life, a disposition toward happiness and the possibilities of improvement that the 18th-century founders of the nation are believed to have acquired from the French Enlightenment.

As the 1960s proceeded, I continued to think myself a liberal and man of the left, yet I loathed nearly everything about the period except for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The 60s constitute the great political Rorschach test of our time. Tell me what you think of that decade, and I shall be able to tell you with a more than fair degree of accuracy your general political and social views.

Those years turned me around in my politics and in my view of America. Because of the unstinting barrage of criticism that rained down on the country from its young and from its putatively educated classes, I began to feel that America could get along nicely without my criticisms. The country needed defending not only from outside enemies, but also from its enemies within. I once heard the essayist Midge Decter, at a conference on the family, say (I quote from memory): “Family, let’s face it, can be a great pain in the neck. I’ve just about had it with the family. But when I see who’s attacking the family, I’ve decided to defend the damn thing.” I began to feel precisely the same way about the United States.

Not that I ever consciously announced, even to myself, that I would now defend my country. Self-dramatization of this kind is not available to me. Such defense as I could provide would of course come from my writing, prose being the only weapon in my small arsenal, and I choose to deploy it in the realms of literature and the social and university scenes.

So much American fiction during these years was anti-American in spirit. The literary 1960s began with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). Published before the Vietnam War got underway in earnest, it was the great commercial and critical success it became chiefly because it anticipated the antiwar spirit of the times that arrived with the Vietnam War. The anti-American bandwagon was crowded with writers. On its capacious open-air deck sat Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, E.L. Doctorow, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Stone, all the so-called Beat Generation writers, the many contributors to the New York Review of Books, and several others.

In an utterance to which many American writers would have subscribed, Norman Mailer announced: “I used to hate America for what it was doing to us. Now I hate all of us for what we are doing to America.” Another novelist, Stanley Elkin, who wasn’t all that political, remarked that Disneyland reminded him “of Dachau and Auschwitz. They put you in these little electric carts and trundle you around.” During the Vietnam War, Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag wrote books making plain their desire that the United States be defeated and humiliated. Sontag would later write, in the New Yorker, that America got pretty much what it deserved on 9/11.

Later, in the 1980s, at Northwestern University (at which I was then teaching), a radical professor staged a shout-down of a non-Marxist Nicaraguan speaker at the university, claiming that the speaker had no First Amendment or any other kind of rights; he deserved instead, because of his views, she said, to die. When the professor was “censured” for this action and these remarks, more than 90 of her colleagues in the liberal arts signed a petition in protest against the censure. That an American university that doesn’t stand up for free speech cannot have any honorable standing at all clearly never occurred to them.

My common sense was outraged by the comparison of Disneyland to the Nazi death camps, by the longing on the part of American writers for their country to lose a war and their pleasure in seeing it attacked, by the denial of basic speech rights to ideological opponents. So, too, was my sense of patriotism, however deeply buried under intellectual sophistication it might hitherto have been.

As a university teacher, which I had become in the early 1970s, I saw how the anti-Americanism of a handful of American intellectuals had spread to become the common property of vast numbers of mediocre academics, who found ways to incorporate it in their teaching of literature, history, sociology, and political science. From mediocre university teachers it passed along to uncritical students, spreading and spreading further and further, until anti-Americanism became a standard ingredient in college education in the humanities and social sciences.

“A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet,” I recently wrote in a review of a book called The Cambridge History of the American Novel, “if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism.”

Place this next to the opening paragraph of “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Abraham Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, reprinted in What So Proudly We Hail:

We find ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tell us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them—they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hill and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit there, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation—to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

_____________

Oddly, the anti-American strain in American life had been deepening just at the time that the United States seemed, in nearly every realm, to be improving. In the visual arts, no longer Paris but America, more specifically New York, had since the early 1960s become the center of the arts universe. The great European conductors led American symphonic orchestras. American writers attracted much more attention than did European writers. Americans won a preponderance of scientific Nobel prizes, and Asian students arrived here in large numbers to take advantage of American scientific education. In the arts and sciences, the United States was where the action was, and, it is fair to say, where it remains.

Meanwhile, Europe seemed to be winding down, if not devolving. England was now a second-line power, no longer Winston Churchill’s but Mick Jagger’s country. France, not noted for its character since the reign of Louis XIV, has become more Muslimized, consequently more tainted by anti-Semitism, and less reliable than ever. Even after the fall of Communism, Russia would still be dominated by thugs, its chief leader today a former KGB man. Japan, after its brief economic rise in the 1980s, saw its financial surge short-circuited, and with it its pretensions to grandeur. America, artistically, scientifically, politically, was, as the Marxists liked to say, hegemonic.

Sometime in the 1980s, I began to realize that I was living in not only the most powerful but the most interesting country in the world. And also the most generous. America, dispensing vast sums of aid, was always top of the list of donors to humanitarian causes. None of the legions of George W. Bush haters seemed able to reconcile their distaste for the man with the large sums that the Bush administration gave to Africa to slow its AIDS plague, and so they chose not to recognize it.

More recently, I watched a television news anchor, Scott Pelley of CBS, ask Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if allocating money for the starving Somali women and children, driven out of their country by war and drought, made sense at a time when the United States was under the lash of such heavy financial burdens of its own. “We can’t not do it,” Mrs. Clinton said, as best I recall, “and still remain America.”

Tolerance in the United States has widened. And yet anti-Americans cling to the claim that America is still a racist country. That the country has a biracial president, elected by a serious majority, has not lessened this claim. My sense is that most Americans want African-Americans to rise, to pull out of the doldrums that have kept so many of them down for far too long, and to cease to listen to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and others who preach, to their own profit, the gospel of relentless victimhood. Acceptance has been greatly extended, too, to homosexuality, to once exotic ethnic and religious groups, and to the extended ambitions of women.

At the same time, one feels a national slippage. The current sluggishness of the economy has added greatly to this feeling, even though the economic slump is worldwide. More than economics is entailed. We have a president, whom I wouldn’t deign to call unpatriotic, but who seems uninterested in having the United States play a leading role in the world and is instead content with the country’s being one strong voice among a chorus of reasonable nations, which might be a splendid ideal if nations were ever reasonable.

All this, alas, plays nicely into the standard anti-American view—the view, that is, of those who find comfort in thinking the worst of their country. Ten books like What So Proudly We Hail will not change this view. You cannot reason people out of something they weren’t reasoned into, the philosophers tell us. One must leave them as they are, shimmering in the superiority of their dark view that in being born Americans they were given a frightfully raw deal, while trying to win over the young who do not have locked-in views.

Not long after I learned of my friend’s son’s plan to live permanently in Brazil, a young woman from Romania who cleans our apartment every two weeks, came to me with a request. Mike, her recent husband, also a Romanian émigré, was applying for citizenship, and together they asked me if I would agree to sponsor him.

Sponsoring an immigrant for citizenship involves filling in a few papers and sending them, along with one’s past year’s income tax form, to the immigration office. Sponsorship also means that if Mike falls on bad times within the next two years I would, technically, be financially responsible for him.

I did so gladly, because I know how hard Michelle, an attractive woman in her 20s who has bought a car and an apartment since acquiring her own United States citizenship, works, and I have found her husband to be no less industrious. Michelle’s English is excellent, Mike’s is trailing behind hers only by a bit. (He was trained in Romania as a computer specialist but needs to learn all the American systems to earn his living at the trade for which he was educated.) On their holidays, they visit California or hike Yellowstone Park. They have family in Romania, a country on hard economic times, to whom they send money.

When Michelle thanked me in the most earnest way for standing in as a sponsor for her husband, I told her I felt it a privilege to do so. “America,” I found myself saying, “needs people like you.” Shortly before their wedding, I gave Michelle and Mike a bottle of good wine. When Mike attains American citizenship, I plan to give them a copy of What So Proudly We Hail.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein, whose new book Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit will be published later this year, last wrote for us about Alfred Kazin’s Journals.




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