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Patriotic Fictions
May 28, 2002
By Dwayne Eutsey

Patriot: One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors. —Ambrose Bierce

Back when a Middle Eastern newspaper broke the Iran/Contra scandals in the ‘80s, the grandmother of a friend of mine said something that has continued to bother me all these years since.

As irrefutable evidence surfaced that the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to America’s sworn enemies, and then used the profits to illegally fund a war in Nicaragua, this genteel, conservative, Christian lady said: “I hope they can’t prove that Reagan did anything.”

What I found disturbing about what she said was that she didn’t necessarily hope that Reagan was innocent of any wrongdoing; in fact, she seemed certain he was guilty of something. Her only apparent concern was that “they” might be able to prove that Reagan had committed these crimes.

It seemed to me that should this happen (i.e., if the truth that sets you free were actually known), it would threaten her belief that it was indeed “morning in America again;” that a cowboy, armed only with a Bible and a six-shooter, had rode into town and saved the land from those menacing heathens around the world and the weak-kneed liberals here at home.

What's most bothersome to me is that she, like many Americans today who don’t want to interrupt all the flag waving to answer uncomfortable questions about what Bush knew prior to the 9/11 attacks, was so unwilling to allow larger truths to intrude upon her rosy patriotic fictions.

Before any right-wing lurker reading this immediately jumps to the conclusion that I believe patriotism is a fictional sham, let me say I don’t necessarily mean “patriotic fictions” here in a derogatory way. What I mean by the phrase is the stories we tell ourselves as a nation in order to understand who we are, what we believe, and what makes us uniquely American.

At their best, these narratives have the power to unify us and challenge us to rise above narrow self-interest and nurture the “better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln eloquently put it. Or, as Ambrose Bierce cynically observed over a century ago, they can stratify us with self-serving delusions that promote the selfish interests of the part above the needs of the whole.

Patriotic fictions can teach us the value of shared self-sacrifice, as when JFK proclaimed: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” They can rally us to overcome daunting challenges, as with FDR’s: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Or they can illustrate the virtue of individual dissent, as when Patrick Henry shouted over accusations of treason: “As for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

However, you need only to have watched CNN over the past year to know that patriotic fictions can also be self-serving platitudes designed to pit “us” against “them”: “You’re either with us or against us.” Or they offer up jingoistic phrases that, like any good marketing slogan, say anything you want and nothing at all: “Let’s roll.” Or they uncritically shout down dissent with “my country right or wrong,” and insist “it’s my way or the highway.”

It’s fictions like these, embraced by people like my friend’s grandmother, that were the cornerstone of Reaganism in the ‘80s and inflated Reagan and Ollie North into Rambo-style “heroes” instead of the treasonous felons they are.

And now these same fictions, being sold to us along with all those flags you see flapping on SUVs, are puffing up Bush’s apparently high approval ratings, even as it becomes increasingly clear that his administration was incredibly negligent (at the very least) in protecting our country from terrorist attack.

As more and more unsettling questions are raised (or buried) concerning Bush’s inaction or foreknowledge prior to 9/11, it seems to me that our national narrative has come full-circle and we find ourselves imperiled by the same constitutional cliffhanger we faced as a country in the mid ’80s.

What’s the denouement going to be this time, I wonder? Will we courageously rise together to confront the ugly truths that are growing in number all around us? And by confronting them as the true heroes of our more noble patriotic fictions have done, rescue our democracy once again from almost certain peril?

Or will we pretend it’s still morning in America, roll over, pull the flag up over our heads, and drift complacently back to sleep again?

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