On the Uses and Abuses of Patriotism

Studying for a midterm tomorrow, so I’m just going to comment briefly on Osama Bin Laden’s death. There are so many angles to approach this from, but probably the most striking for me was the reaction to the news by the crowds in front of the White House, at Ground Zero, at the Phillies game and here at Penn, where I just walked past a fraternity house blaring, “Proud to Be an American.” In the days after 9/11, the “rah-rah USA” impulse struck me as a peculiar response to a monumental human tragedy. People–average people from towns including my own, who worked just miles from where I went to school, with sons and daughters, husbands and wives–had been massacred, and it seemed a strange, and almost laughably hollow, act of memorial to stick an American flag in one’s front yard. To the extent that the flag-waving and “God Bless America” singing brought us together in support for the victims and solidarity to achieve justice on their behalf, I suppose some good could have come out of it. But alas, the chants of “USA!” became not so much a rallying cry to build a better society as a convenient excuse for a fraudulent war and the rape and pillage of the constitution.

I have no qualms with the people out there celebrating Bin Laden’s death. I’m even prepared to chalk up some of the more cringe-worthy and thoroughly frat-tastic displays by some of my fellow college students on national TV to youthful exuberance or cathartic euphoria. I personally have always had something of a revulsion toward death of any kind, so if I had to sum up my own feelings, Mark Twain’s pitch-perfect quote (helpfully tweeted last night) would work well: “I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” I did read Bin Laden’s obit in the Times last night, and yes, I did so with considerable pleasure. As for the chest-thumping and flag-waving, I can only hope that this time it all amounts to more than empty jingoism. If patriotism is to serve any purpose, let it be in service of an America more just, more tolerant and more compassionate than the one before.


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