2 April 2023
Here in the academic enclave neighborhood of southern-Chicago shoreland where I’ve been living just a few years — on multiple counts a foreigner-outsider, no doubt permanently — I got myself out to a book talk organized through an arm of the divinity school last week. There are a lot of opportunities for this sort of thing here, but I manage to take advantage of them only rarely. It was good to attend this one. That’s not to say that it was a comfortable experience exactly, only that it was good on the whole. I am grateful for such occasions.
The talk, conducted interview-style, turned to a degree I hadn’t been expecting to the issue of the political climate around media and access for younger consumers (a category resistant to clear definition, it’s useful to consider). If I’d known the author and her work a bit better, I might have been expecting it. I’d only learned of her a few days before, as it happens. I’m not the market much of her work is aimed at in any case. In good part, really, it was exposure to unfamiliar material and a side of the publishing scene I don’t know well that drew me to begin with.
What the always adaptive American right, now full-steam in a post-Bush-Obama reconfiguring mode, is getting away with in this territory of media / publishing and its politicizability is remarkable, if not surprising, and more than worthy of attention at length I can’t devote here. One of the parts of the country to watch, I’ll note, is one I can call home in a way I can’t the part where I live. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund took a lead role, you may recall, in stymieing a noteworthily bold book-repression attempt made there in very recent years. That these people — very much my people, as to my origins and family — gave that legal edge-case a run at all should suggest something about their confidence and the variety of tricks they’re ready to pull from their sleeves. Virginia, moreover, is not really today hard-right vanguard zone in the national context.
By coincidence, I’d been listening to the conversation between Mariame Kaba and incoming American Library Association pres. Emily Drabinski, below, in the day or so ahead of attending this book talk. I recommend it: difficult, depressing subject but a heartening and (if you listen to end, particularly) practical discussion nevertheless.
I want to come to something of a ‘notes on fascism & liberalism’ point in this post. An element in the book-talk conversation that you could say sets it in a certain distinction to this other, here above, recorded with Drabinski and Kaba, came at a moment when, as a sort of perspective-establishing adjustment responding to heaviness that to an extent had overtaken in the exchange, the author took a line with a certain predictable feel-good value in a group of left-/ center-left-identifying liberals, saying (roughly), ‘You know, excuse me, but I’m a patriot. It’s us who stand for freedom of speech and say No to the book-burners who are the real American patriots.’
Let’s be clear: this works for me. I feel the feel-good. I experience American identity this way. She was speaking to my Americanness.
But I would hesitate to take this line myself. That’s not self-censorship from caution about how one should present in hope (just about entirely futile in my case regardless) of being socially acceptable in left / left-liberal spaces merely, though I know this cautiousness well. Nor is it, at the same time, merely my higher regard for what one might think of as more uncompromising leftist sensibilities of the kind governing in the Kaba-Drabinski talk. I do think, however, that knowing that we’d perhaps be surprised to hear ‘You know, excuse me, but I’m a patriotic American’ from Kaba or Drabinski, in or (I imagine) out of approved institutional settings like that of the recorded event there, as likewise we conversely won’t blink when the expression does arise as unifying sentiment in social surroundings like that of the book talk the other day, warrants thinking about prior to and alongside this minor fact of my own hesitancy.
A difference between me and the book-talk author, I want to suggest — though, again, I can only affirm her preferred view of American identity as for all intents an exact match with my own, a well-aimed appeal to mine — is that I’m hearing the religious in this word patriot, I’m being addressed religiously, in ways that perhaps don’t register for her, or in ways that she might want to say can be tuned out rather, that the ascendant liberal has always signified would increasingly of necessity be tuned out.
What I’m not about to do is make essentializing claims about the word and its path to present as found in dictionaries. I’m talking from my history, the world as I know it, here. For me, in the call to the inward patriotic there is indelibly religion, underlying somehow, in very old terms, as in some contexts you could maybe still expect aspects of the religious to be spoken of (wrongly, for sure) as pre-Christian. That is to say, the patriotic really at root entails the sense of fundamental belonging, of deep coming from and being destined to, in ways that run variously to the ethnic, the territorial and so on, and in any case mean being bound up in what’s greater than oneself world-historically, cosmologically. The patriot is ready to kill and to die in regard for something of bodies of water and tracts of land not finally divorceable from the sense of self, in regard for god(s) standing before to dispose as we go and judge as we end, in regard for forebears only knowable in story and notions of genetic entanglement more poetry than blood. Patriots give their children to die, watch their children die, and experience in the loss — not abstractly but in the world concretely — fulfillment rather than simple waste, that life-stain in the dirt the truth in place and our passage in it.
Something important to me to draw out here is that as the religiously experiential thing I’m driving at pertains to ‘patriot’ particularly, it’s modern (of the last half-millennium or so) and possibly to some peculiar degree American. The complex of meaning, that is, is undoubtedly ancient, but the meaning’s turning up and acquiring potency here and in this form, for us, rather less so. It strikes me as very doubtful, anyhow, that the United States’ founding generation’s famous reliance on the word indeed tells us of an eighteenth-century dawn of discovery in the realm of the political — supposed discovery that a country could be built on the people’s common commitment to an idea.
There was unquestionably a class of founding figure with commitment to ideas (interpretively reducible in retrospect, you could argue, to ‘an idea,’ an image of the politically perennial) and willing in various senses to fight hard over them. To what, from and for what, were the rest committed, the people we remember principally as diffuse European mass spread up and down the Atlantic seaboard, who’d begun to be ‘Americans’ through settlement in its many manifestations, clearing away indigenous others and trees to start, and eventually also the representatives of the crown? The answer to that is not neat, it’s multiple and complicated. The fellas in wigs and waistcoats had the sense to appreciate this fact, surely. These guys were first administrators of contracts, surveyors of boundaries, keepers of accounts, preachers of sermons, after all, and theorists and architects of (Protestant) governments for a gradually fragmenting and mutating global Christendom only in time, subsequently, as world affairs remained unstable and opportunity arose. Primary public life in the colonies was increasingly literate, stylized, networked, universalizing, yes, but still everywhere profoundly pragmatic. It’s in this matrix of populace in motion and political immediacy, somehow, that the patriotic had possibility, could be cultivated — not as the product of philosophy but as human exigency, fertile, brutal, pilgrim, alive alike to the world’s revolving and to its side-slipping shifting.
Americans, at least, today have to take that burgeoning, unnaturally transforming eighteenth-into-nineteenth-century settler situation seriously as real-world anchor in some sense tethering whatever talk of the patriotic we get into, I think. I think so in part because all that is simply not that distant, and the colonial-revolutionary situation and its human dimensions necessarily carry over in all sorts of ways to our present. Not to put too fine a point on it: we surely have to consider that there’s an active relationship to be described between this element of the sociopolitical continuous in America’s short shared existence and American order’s ever-current, ever-renewing murderousness and zeal for locking people up at home and (as the resources are available) abroad.
I am not working up to adjudging the word out of bounds for those I might say can legitimately claim left-alignment. I’m not working up to saying that appeals to patriotic spirit are implicitly fascistic or something correct-thinking Americans ought to be reflexively queasy about. I’m not edging, I insist, toward any definitional determination for the word, by reference to historical moments not our own or otherwise. (Defining is fine, but what I’m thinking about here is our fluid reality and how we may find a word, this word, at its own work and play in it.) I think even the left-identifying liberal type can fruitfully engage in performances of reclamation of ‘patriotic,’ and with it perhaps a host of other troubled expressions and postures, to speak their (our) truth about a more-valid ‘timeless’ tradition, republican concord and human rights, emergent in modernity. I do want to account, still, for my own discomfort — even where I’m one of the liberals being stroked — at liberals getting cozy with the word for each other’s satisfaction in liberal-safe spaces. This isn’t a nice word, ‘patriot.’ It’s not a venerable word, once grand, a little the worse for wear. It’s an old busted fucking chunk of concrete of a word with rusted rebar and broken glass sticking out of it. It’s messed some people up, in case you needed reminding. Yeah I can see there’s provocative possibilities, but seriously, you should be careful around that thing. Be smart.
Ah. Liberals aren’t especially inclined to be careful, are we? We don’t believe we should feel so constrained. Ours is the default position! History is going our way!
Okay, maybe twentyfirst-century liberals broadly have learned not to say the History’s going our way bit, at least not so loudly. But I don’t raise this specter to shame. I am really interested in the enduring present default-ness of the liberal. I’m really interested, for instance, in the fascists arising as (among other things) challengers to the liberal and the liberal’s proving not to be, at least on my reading of events to date, anywhere really simply repressible in face of it. Which isn’t to say, in case it’s not clear, ‘Hurrah, ultimately we’re beating the fascists.’ We’re not beating the fascists. (Keeping them in check, possibly. Beating them, no.) The liberal can be default and irrepressible and the fascists be perpetual unshakeable antagonist, say, both at the same time. If that were something one could demonstrate, show to be arguable, for that matter, maybe describing the case well would do a lot to develop our appreciation of what the liberal is in the first place. Something to think about (if you’re interested like me anyway).