Us and the US
[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’. That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings. That format will be followed in the précis. The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword. Each chapter is about 1400 words.]
In his first campaign for election as President, Mr Barack Obama was criticised for not wearing the badge of his flag. Someone even queried his patriotism. An Australian politician wearing a flag in his lapel would be open to a comment that would not be flattering; but it would be out of the question to criticize one for not doing so. Such a comment would not just be in bad taste –it would be evidence of madness. Members of the current government (2014) from time to time get exercised over a lack of empathy from the national broadcaster, the ABC, as if the ABC were being unpatriotic in criticising its employer; but sane Australians regard that silly kind of political posturing as bullshit.
Most people in Australia understand the word ‘patriot’ to mean someone who loves their country and is loyal to it. Australians do not use the terms Fatherland of Motherland; neither did the English; those words make both lots uneasy. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that something more is required of a patriot than passive loyalty. It says that a patriot is ‘one who exerts himself to promote the well-being of his country; one who maintains and defends his country’s freedom or rights.’ To be a patriot, you have to get off your backside and do something – this then raises the spectre of the busybody.
A love of your country presupposes that you know what your country is. What was the Motherland of a fifth generation colonial family in Boston in 1760? America as nation had not yet been invented, and even when it was, a lot would regard their first loyalty as that owed to the colony or state. The question can also arise when there is a change in the regime of the country that is loved, as for example when the king loses his head. Citizens of Paris in 1760 knew that France was the mother country – la patrie – and that King Louis XIV represented France. But what was the case after the king had been guillotined and the monarchy had been abolished? Were you loyal to la France or la patrie? But if you said either, and you were allowed to get away with saying that and no more, you could be saying that you were loyal to the Republic – or that you remained loyal to the monarchy.
So, questions about patriotism arise where there is a regime change in the nation that is loved. Those become life or death questions when the title of the new regime is shaky because it came into power unlawfully – and by definition, a revolution, a change of regime wrought by violent means, is not lawful. So, people in a revolution get quizzed about their patriotism.
The British crown was overthrown in America in the course of a revolt that might now be called a terrorist insurgency. If the revolt had failed, and if there had been no change of regime, its leaders could have been executed for treason. They understood this. When the Declaration was signed, Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Well, Gentleman, we must now hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately.’ At the end of the Civil War, many in the North wanted to hang Jefferson Davis and Lee. Their ‘crimes’ were of the essence of treason – they had sought to overthrow the republic of the United States by force.
That kind of insecurity of title has not been a problem for the U S – after they won the war of independence, they won the recognition of the Union, and a lot of the supporters of the old regime left to go ‘home’. But it kept flaring in France after the death of the king, and it led to instability for about a century. The government said that la patrie est en dangère [the Fatherland is in peril], but this came to mean in the Terror that those in power were feeling lethally insecure. They then executed people who threatened their security. You were not a true ‘patriot’ if you were against ‘the Revolution’, and you were against the Revolution if you were opposed to those who constituted its most recently formed government.
In this way, ‘patriotism’ very quickly became opposed to ‘liberty’ – the first refuge of any government seeking to reduce the rights and liberties of its subjects is to claim that the nation is in danger. The shorthand now is ‘national security.’ You will even find national security being invoked against refugees. Simon Schama referred to ‘the problematic relationship between patriotism and liberty, which, in the Revolution, turns into a brutal competition between the power of the state and the effervescence of politics.’
But one problem did remain in the United States. When everything had settled down, you might be from Virginia and the U S, but if there was a conflict, with whom did you side? This had not crystallised as a problem for Washington. Like most Americans at his level in, say, 1760, he was ambivalent about England and its crown and institutions. He had repeatedly sought a commission in the imperial force, but the Horse Guards, the relevant HQ, had no regard for colonials, from America or India. But for this snobbery, the allegiance of Washington, and history, may have been different.
But this was a problem for Robert E Lee. He held a commission from the Union, that he had served for more than thirty years. Was he to turn his troops against his home in Virginia? Where a professional person is torn between competing interests, then, if a duty is owed to both, the law says that that person should serve neither. That was not the option chosen by Lee. Lee himself cited Washington’s withdrawal of loyalty to Great Britain as ‘an example not branded by the world with reproach.’ Lee’s choice baffles many today and was a reason why many Americans wanted him hanged.
Australia never had a revolution, and that may be a reason why patriotism is not discussed there. De Tocqueville summed up patriotism for Americans. ‘But I maintain that the most powerful, and perhaps the only means of interesting men in the welfare of their country, which we still possess, is to make them partakers in the Government…….in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity’. Cupidity might be greed, as in the famous ‘Greed is good’ of Gordon Gekko.
De Tocqueville also said: ‘As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself…..Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.’ There you have Donald Trump.
There is something close to the heart of America here. The upside is ambition, drive, and personal and communal responsibility; the downside is Salem, McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, and Gordon Gekko – and that nonsense about the lapel pin of Barack Obama. In some sense, the feeling of communal responsibility and participation does seem to rest well with American patriotism; so does their prickliness if you happen to query in passing something close to American hearts.
Australians are not so serious about all this kind of thing, and open discussion, much less profession, of patriotism is not encouraged. If they see it in Americans, they might mumble something about people wearing their hearts on their sleeve