Real American Stories

The Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced The Pacific is an estimable effort, but has failed, unlike its predecessor, Band of Brothers – about the war in Europe – to produce a cohesive, overarching narrative and vision of the Pacific war. BOB, based on Steven Ambrose’s book about the real life Easy Company, began with a cohesive whole. The Pacific, woven together from the memoirs of several men, and scattered in its attention over several distinct island campaigns, has struggled to produce the same sense of continuity. Last night, however, it reached a height. Episode seven, the second full episode to concentrate on the infernal combat on Pelieu, explored a level of spiritual bleakness amid the carnage of war that shifted The Pacific from the patriotic realism of Spielberg’s and Hank’s Saving Private Ryan to the soulless hell of sustained combat depicted in Terence Malick’s less hallowed The Thin Red Line. I explored this comparison in “The Altered State of War,” at Bright Lights Film Journal, if you have any interest in war films and how they function.

One of the ways depictions of war function is in their varied willingness to redeem the psychic horror and physical damage of war in patriotic honor. Disputes over war art, and war, often center on this issue. In these disputes the moral and esthetic often mix in complex ways. For instance, war films that are too overtly patriotic – even to the point of the jingoistic – will be criticized esthetically, as will almost any artistic statement that seems obvious and heavy handed. For some, though, this esthetic criticism is also a moral critique, as what are considered excessive displays of patriotism, in general, outside of art, are thought morally dubious, manipulative, dangerous.

While some conservatives find class snobbery in the liberal contempt for Sarah Palin, and I’ve said before that I think there is undeniable truth in the claim, easily confused with class snobbery is this hybrid of aesthetic and moral response. To reduce liberal response to Glenn Beck, to choose another example, to this kind of condescension would be an error. Unlike Palin, who proudly promotes a class and cultural identity to which highly educated liberals might negatively respond, Beck does not project his personal identity in this manner. What he shares with Palin, aside from specific views on policy, is a patriotic promotionalism that many liberals find profoundly, vomitably cheesy. The fearful, weepy patriotic displays are so crassly manipulative, so transparently demagogic, as a matter of style, that they lose any value as expression, regardless of the idea they express. But the matter of style is not one of mere style, the fey response of aesthetes. The idea of patriotism embraces complexly interacting sets of relations among people – consider, for instance, the deep discord between many liberals and conservatives today that renders their affinity as Americans quite an abstracted one – that are fundamentally moral in the consideration. A simplistic or manipulated expression of patriotism is not simply an aesthetic failure, but a moral offense – a deficiency in that it simplifies complex moral ideas. The response to Palin, like that to Beck – who is clearly smarter (both more knowledgeable and more intelligent) than Palin – draws on this interaction of the aesthetic and the moral.

We can find this interaction in Palin’s new Fox News program. We can find it in its title: Real American Stories. Well, we know it can and will be Real (American Stories), but we also know, liberal and conservative alike, that the title is meant to convey a notion of Real American (Stories). This is a tiring, but not tired, conservative move, because it is long-established and continuing, and liberals have never found an effective response to it. Liberal expressions of and about patriotism are almost entirely defensive responses to conservative professions of it, and complex, defensive responses are almost always inferior to the simplistic expression of the supposedly simple virtue that prompted them, especially in politics: We’re talking about patriotism – what’s complicated?

We saw this during the 2008 presidential campaign in the minor, but not insignificant controversy over Barack Obama’s American flag label pin – or lack thereof. One would imagine that the individualistic strain of American conservatism would abhor the enforced pieties of culturally conformist displays, but twentieth century conservatism is actually steeped in them. And because this is politics, one can’t win on the topic. You object to wearing a flag pin on your lapel – what kind of American are you?

No, you see, it’s not the flag, it’s the – . Yeah, yeah.

So Obama wears the pin, and his opponents – many of them – don’t think he is American anyway, and the next person who will sell U.S. secrets to a foreign power for fifty thousand dollars and a new home for his wife wore one on his way into Langley this morning.

Patriotism – it’s simple. Or not, less so when conservatives and liberals are so much positioning themselves on it in reaction to the other.

Take Susannah at The Minority Report who puts together an undeniably effective post demonstrating that most of the dissenting verbal excesses of which liberals now think conservatives guilty have been committed by liberals, and are thus okay. One wonders whether this was Susannah’s position when liberals were committing these excesses in large numbers against George W. Bush, or whether she is a convert to this okayness only now that it is her turn. One does have to wonder, too, when adults will stop arguing like seven year olds, and cease crying “You did it, too!” and expecting to be taken seriously by anyone other than knee-jerk allies.

However, Susannah is not content to ratify any form of dissent, no matter how distasteful, as okay; she actually titles her post “Dissent is the Highest Form of Patriotism.”

Or that’s what the left used to say when George W. Bush was president. And, you know what? They were right. Dissent is still the highest form of patriotism.

Ah, nothing like the passion of the convert.

But forgive me if I – dissent. The night before last I reviewed Warren Beatty’s Reds for the first time in nearly thirty years. In a late scene, Beatty’s John Reed discovers that Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev has been altering Reed’s speeches in translation. Zinoviev, who was no slouch at dissent himself (for which Stalin had him pay in 1936), tells Reed to get with the program, and Reed fires back that dissent is the essence of revolution.

And of patriotism? Hmm. Where are we headed with this?

This is an example of how thinking is distorted when it is guided by the desire to score political points against the opponent, by turning the opponent’s own moves and language against him.

Dissent is a value to be very highly esteemed, to be sure, but I think the highest form of patriotism is to give one’s life for one’s country, obviously in war, like the men whose stories are told in The Pacific, but in public service too.

Hey, that was a real switcheroo. Gotta work on the cheese, but – how patriotic, how American am I?


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