If you haven't heard about this, Wesley Clark in response to a question by Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation this past Sunday and to point out that John McCain has no executive experience, said, "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."
One would have thought, from the reaction, that he had actually said something controversial. Many presidents in history, good ones and bad ones, had not had the experience of being shot down while in a plane during war and still managed to get the job.
I'm thinking about that as the Fourth of July approaches. I'm also thinking about a Swiss woman who came to talk to our 4th grade class way back when about her country, and one of my classmates asked her, "Do you feel more free in America?" Something tells me that story stuck with her.
It's true that there are few countries I'd rather live in than the US. The US is a pretty good-looking country and the American people are idiosyncratic enough that I can't stay away from other Americans for too long. We have a strong and peculiar culture that I miss if I'm away from for too long.
But the idea of America isn't just a block of land with people on it. It's supposed to be about freedom, and Americans like to think of themselves as particularly more free than everyone else in the world. Like that boy who had probably been drilled on how America is the land of the free so much that he actually thought that someone from Switzerland would notice a substantive difference in her level of freedom, it seems like Americans do a whole lot more talking about freedom than is often justified.
What Wesley Clark said this past Sunday wasn't at all controversial and was pretty much the truth - John McCain's military service alone doesn't qualify him for the presidency. If it did, then there are literally millions of people in the US who should be running and winning the high office.
But what he also did was hit on pretty much the only qualification John McCain has to be president, his tribalism. McCain isn't particularly smart, nor do people generally agree with his stands on the issues. He doesn't have a great history of public service outside of military service, he wasn't a spectacular Senator, and he doesn't really have a charming personality. What this race is coming down to for him is presenting himself as one of "Us" and Barack Obama as one of "Them."
The modern Republican Party got pretty good in the 80's, 90's, and early part of this century in hiding that tribalism as something that people wouldn't find automatically repugnant. Whether we were talking about welfare queens, the homosexual agenda, radical feminists, "gangstas," Communists, Islamists, illegal immigrants, or outsourced jobs, the job of the Republican politician was to demonize a group of people and posit him or herself as America's savior from that group.
For John McCain, all those issues are pretty much off the table as welfare was effectively eliminated in the 90's, people are getting more comfortable with the gays, the Republican rhetoric on terrorism becomes empty and tiresome, and people know the real threat to their pocketbooks has a lot more to do with slimy mortgage brokers, oil corporations, and a generally sluggish economy than it has to do with any other demon the Republican Party can produce. And illegal immigration can't be effectively used to McCain's benefit because of his "soft" stance on it.
In other words, this election is pretty much only about tribalism in its rawest and most transparent form. Hence the media's rush to demonize a four-star general who dares to state the obvious about the limits of John McCain's military record.
So I never really liked the Fourth of July all that much. It doesn't have great food (IMHO), it doesn't have presents, I don't like fireworks, and we already got the day off from school when I was younger anyway (and when I was older I worked on that day since people still needed to eat!). The fact that it's a symbol for the sort of stark nationalism that silences and makes sure that we all follow lock-step with whatever the millionaires on TV and the powerful people in the government have determined is the most patriotic thought, politic, or creed just adds some icing to that cake.
I'm in that space between liking the people who come from my country and disliking the cynical use of blind patriotism to get rich people money and to try to get Bush's friends oil. It seems to me that being patriotic, as the love of an abstract narrative about one's country, is always going to fall into these same traps. Once one's affection for the people around them, their government, and the land on which the live has been separated from those things and people themselves, then it can be toyed around with to push people into supporting things that are, concretely, not in their best interests.
Another example of this, besides what Wesley Clark said above, would be the lead-up to the Iraq War, as television stations felt that they would be labeled unpatriotic if they didn't cheer lead us into Iraq hard enough. Providing information about the justifications for war would have been in everyone's best interests, but their idea of what it meant to be patriotic got in the way.
They were more concerned with appearing patriotic than they were with doing what's best for the people who live in their country.
I'm starting to think that there isn't a way to be patriotic without that sentiment possibly being used against oneself. Since, from what I've seen of it, it has little to do with the people who live in a country, I can't see any benefit to the sentiment.
But it's at the heart of John McCain's message as to why he should be president: patriotic people choose one of "Us" to be president, not one of "Them." The fact that the "Them" this time is an educated Black man with a non-American father and no military record only helps the McCain campaign disseminate their message.
So, after all this, I'm interested in what you all think: is there a way to save patriotism from itself?