This is supposed to be the most patriotic time of the year. There are flags everywhere and, if you live in Garden Grove, Stanton or Westminster, you’re probably going to see bombs bursting in air, too.
No, this isn’t a rant against fireworks. The train left the station on that a while back. I want to take on the issue of patriotism and what it means.
The vast majority of Americans, I believe, would describe themselves as being patriotic, but it’s more difficult to find a way to agree on what that translates to. Judged on casual conversation, Facebook posts and voting patterns, the picture is emerging of three distinct political classes.
On the center-left, there are the folks who would find American values best represented by our nation’s dedication to democracy, equality and the social contract, where “we’re all in this together.” On the right (there really is very little remaining of the old center-right), there are folks who glory in America’s embrace of free enterprise, individualism and meritocracy (the best will rise to the top).
The third group of people are watching the Kardashians on TV and don’t vote. They rarely are only more than dimly aware that there even are elections.
Although the civic virtues listed above have some appeal across the lines of party and faction, it is the way those ideas are envisioned that creates the gulf. When a Democrat says equality, a Republican might feel that means he has to hire underqualified loafers and never be able to fire them. When a conservative talks about free enterprise, a liberal “hears” him or her talk about plans to open a factory where substandard wages will be paid and industrial waste dumped into Bambi’s watering hole.
As I see it, all those patriotism concepts are necessary to the flourishing of the nation. Business people are not saints (which of us are, except for Drew Breese?), but they are necessary for the creation of jobs and wealth. Henry Ford and Steve Jobs may not have been perfect people, but they helped make America into what is still the world’s leading economy.
Government is not the enemy, either. Ronald Reagan is often misquoted as saying “Government is not the solution.” What he actually said was that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution.” That’s obvious to anyone who’s visited a DMV office in the last 50 years. And yet, without government, there’s no military to defend us, firefighters to protect our homes, teachers to educate our children, etc., etc.
A middle road seems obvious, yet why are we so polarized, it seems? To me the answer is obvious: self-interest.
The best way to raise money for a political campaign is to scare Your Side into thinking that the Other Side is Satan on toast. The best way to boost your TV ratings or Internet traffic is to demonize every petty statement or action of The Other Side. These people, on left and right, are mostly hucksters out to fatten their own bank accounts by trying to make you scared of something.
It reminds me of those “doomsday” prophets who corral a congregation of soft-headed people into donating all their worldly goods to a charity (run conveniently by the prophet) because the end of the world is coming on Oct. 11 at 9:42 a.m. It’s cynical and obvious and happens over and over. People like to think they are “in the know.” Especially when they are not thinking at all.
I laugh at all conspiracy theories because, frankly, people are too darned disorganized and loose-lipped to ever carry one off. The possibility that My Side is pure virtue and The Other Side pure sin is manifestly silly. Look around. You might adore your friends and family, but a lot of them clearly have only one oar in the water. If your loved ones are that much of a mixed bag, think how screwy people in a political party or faction are likely to be.
One civic virtue you don’t hear much about is “the common good.” That’s because we are encouraged by our prejudices, the media, our peers, our unions, our fears and ignorance and simple human nature, to take an “us vs. them” approach.
And yet, America has always been a supremely cooperative society. Perhaps one of the ways we built this country was by recognizing that you don’t have to win every argument to have a conversation. And anyone who thinks he or she is right all the time should consult with a spouse.
We celebrate the birthday not of the “Conservative States of America,” or the “People’s Republic of The Two Coasts” but the UNITED States of America. E Pluribus Unum means “one out of many,” not two out of five. Some points to ponder while burning hot dogs and watching the pyrotechnics fly over your neighbor’s roof.