Pride is not the patriotic mode: toward a socialist democratic politics of Christian charity and candor

“Akhmatova insists, correctly in my opinion, that whoever doesn’t make continual reference to the torture chambers all around us is a criminal.”
William T. VollmannEurope Central

Recently, Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Senator Barack Obama, committed the faux pas of insufficiently sugarcoating her recognition that a conferral of pride is something to be earned rather than perfunctorily and thus meaninglessly conferred—upon nations as upon individuals—when she said, on February 18th at a rally in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.” The content of this sentiment was not new to Obama’s rhetoric. Her stump speech, as Lauren Collins points out in an excellent profile of Obama in The New Yorker two weeks ago, is littered with statements of a similar message that that can be roughly summed up: Guys, we’ve done some pretty bad shit, and it’s time to get our act together.
All in all an exceedingly motherly message. But she was too motherly for many of us to stand, reminding us as she did that to feel any legitimate pride in our good acts, we must concomitantly acknowledge and even shame ourselves for our misdeeds. The rawness of Obama’s sentiment—a slip of the tongue symbolizing a lifetime of internalizing, agonizing over and, yes, even suffering American iniquities—was new and new in a way that was easily exploitable, so it took little time for the clichéd charge that Obama is “anti-American” to surface and be taken up with verve (as treated here by Todd Gitlin) by the rightwing and mainstream U.S. media. Yet is Obama’s frank assessment of America’s moral improprieties not productive to our stated goal of—as her husband put it yesterday in a novel and cogent statement on race and politics—striving to “form a more perfect union”? Is Obama not a patriot precisely because she confronts us unapologetically with our own dark underbelly, again very much like a mother—and perhaps by extension very much like a first lady in the Eleanor Roosevelt mold? Isn’t telling us frankly when we’re full of shit and scolding us when we flub arguably Mom’s most important job?

We Americans have much to be proud of, such as ridding the world of most totalitarian communisms, improving civil rights and quality of life for minorities, opposition to genocide, longstanding diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. But to have unequivocal pride in those American triumphs, we would need to so divorce the idea of the event (“the end of communism” or whatever else), from the ugly political realities (assassination, brainwashing, economic fraud, hypocrisy, etc.) necessary to effect them. That is to say that we can be “proud” of nixing commies, aiding the disadvantaged, providing global aid and ombudsmanship, etc., but only in strictly abstract way, one that divorces our judgment from the material altogether and encourages us to abdicate responsibility for direct action, which—when done en masse as it is now—results in a collective venture of social self-delusion. Such delusion is symptomized by a young woman’s buying a bottle of Ethos Water at Starbucks to ease her liberal guilt at not doing enough for the developing world; it is symbolized by the high-school quiz-game nerd who plays vocabulary games at (a site that donates 10 grains of rice to an anonymous developing country somewhere in exchange for your looking at banners advertising sponsors whose charity is cheapened by their vested economic interest in the success of this “charitable” venture) and so feels a tiny bit better about flatly ignoring a homeless person earlier in the day. This is perhaps a questionable conclusion to reach on the level of the individual subject, but there is little question that we as a society make certain small and painless gestures, facilitated by the distantiating effect of global capital and abstract systems generally, to comfort ourselves for refusing to make larger and more painful ones. Collectively, Ethos and and their many counterparts in this process of exchange are, as Zizek frequently points out, the ultimate assimilation of charity by capital: “Want to help people? Buy things!” The injunction to buy was also, of course, the Bush administration’s only injunction put to the American people after 9/11: purchase, purchase, purchase, or the terrorists will have won!

Freeing ourselves from that collective delusion is a prerequisite to asserting the holistic pride in U.S. accomplishments that conservatives and the media seem to expect from Obama. Yet the abstract structure of late capitalism makes such an emancipation impossible: we can never assume the radically material responsibility for the actions of our government that we would need to assume to claim such unqualified pride. Obfuscations of violence and deceit (and consequent ethics of disingenuousness) arise viscerally from no discrete source and with no conspicuous causal logic from the distantiating bureaucracies of late capitalism. Most 20th-century American triumphs are anchored and dependent upon in those very obfuscations. (Zizek discusses a microcosm of this effect, in the form of diplomatic communiques during the Cuban Missile Crisis, here.) So the U.S. defeat of communism is negated, or at least undermined, by the promoting of dictatorships and the support and even engineering of coups, assassinations. Similarly, the recognition of minorities, which is thought of as inherently and unilaterally good due to the overemphasis our culture places on the “uncovering” or “finding” or “discovering” (in other words, minority movements’ tendency to reify concepts that cannot be cleanly reified in order to perhaps win some to their side—such as, for instance, the mainstream gay rights movement’s placing all its hopes for social acceptance, itself horribly problematic as a goal, in an irrational, outmoded philosophy of biological determinism) has come at the cost of ignoring inequality (in manners that are explored incisively by Walter Benn Michaels in The Shape of the Signifier). This is not to say that advancements made by minorities are insignificant or unimportant—of course the opposite is true—but we must bear in mind that the steam that powers those advances is often logically specious, and that those “advances” often result in negatives in addition to their obvious positives, and are thus on a number of levels socially irresponsible if our goal is a loving and benevolent, rather than a merely “tolerant,” society. Further, while we aid foreign nations, we do so at scandalously low levels when our aid, calculated per capita in relation to GDP, is far less than that of most other (usually weaker) western economies. We decry genocide and work to stop it; yet we have no compunctions about maintaining a willful ignorance of genocide when it is politically expedient. We work for peace in the Middle East, but our vital oil interests in the region cast our enthusiasm for that work as a product of economic and political factors, not humanitarian ones. The list of positive reasons for us to feel pride that are necessarily debased by the guilt occasioned by deplorable corollaries to that pride goes on and on. Pride is positive and possible in the abstract, but pride untempered by abashedness for our accompanying sins is mindless, not patriotic.
Acknowledging that as Obama inadvertently did in making her gaffe is a demonstration of her engaged and devoted citizenship. Acknowledging that is also a deeply Christian act. Pride is not a virtue; it is a sin, and, worse, it’s a deadly sin. (In the case of Iraq, the national sin of pride has proven quite literally deadly.) Before we can repent of a sin, it must be confessed. Obama, like most of us, believes that at least some of what has been done in the name of United States citizens, both abroad (e.g., Iraq) and domestically (e.g., failing healthcare, mass poverty), is irreducibly shameful. This does not mean that she believes that everything that has been done to us or on our behalf by our government is shameful. Not at all. She has no animosity toward “the government” or “America” (in light of the conservative success in aligning the state as such with “America,” that abstraction in which we all like to include ourselves) as such. Rather, she recognizes that our government—and at times our national moral conscience—guided as it is by idiots very much like the rest of us, often stumbles and needs to be scolded sans conventional political-campaign sanitizing censorship.
Candidness, for Obama, is a virtue. In this she seems to have fallen out of an early Aaron Sorkin script, a kindred spirit to Michael Douglas in The American President; or a friend to Sports Night’s Isaac Jaffe, who expects those around him to challenge and refine his moral convictions, who believes that debate is healthy for the mind and the spirit; or a rhetorical sister to Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet in any number of episodes of The West Wing. Obama here has framed pride as a matter distinct from patriotism—or, in Rortyese, she has distinguished pride for one’s country, which necessarily fluctuates and often lapses, from love of one’s country, which should be enduring. Unflappable pride is the sign of an addled mind. Patriotism, as Sorkin reminds us to the point of redundancy, lies not in a blind allegiance to one’s country but in the willingness of those like Obama to continually challenge that allegiance in order to strengthen and substantiate the love that sustains it. History agrees: many if not most acts (individual acts—not, say, war, which is in a different paradigm) that our historians and thus we label “patriotic” are executed precisely because someone was not proud of his country—because that someone, to continue calling himself part of his country, felt as though he had to change his contemporaries’ moral compass. Lincoln and King come to mind immediately, but patriots whose patriotism lay in their willingness to dissent abound in U.S. history. If “patriotism” has any correlation with pride in one’s country, that correlation would seem to be negative rather than positive. My friend Rohan Mulgaonkar frames this point with respect to Obama specifically:

Given her and her husband’s opposition to the Iraq War, the thousands of soldiers and [600,000 Iraqi] civilian deaths, the substantial lessening of the prestige and gravity of the Presidential office, the institution of policies that limit individual liberties, it would seem this should be the moment she’s least proud of her country.

It should in fact come as no surprise that the Christian Obama is new to the experience of an overwhelming pride. Resistance to perfunctory pride—also known to Christians as modesty—is not inimical to patriotism, but the precise mode of the patriot.

Cindy and John McCain

Cindy McCain, spouse of now-Republican presidential nominee Arizona Senator John McCain, obliquely responded to Obama’s comments the day after they were made at a McCain rally in Wisconsin: “I’m proud of my country. I don’t know about you—if you heard those words earlier—I’m very proud of my country.” Even setting aside the narrow-mindedness and intellectual bad faith on Cindy McCain’s part that this innuendo evinces, we still have a problem, and a more interesting problem than a simple coöpting of the patriotic mantle. “I don’t know about you,” she says, but “I….” Is her emphasis on “I” here not symptomatic of a Reaganist-individualist disregard for the abstract other, for our fellow humans whose lives we affect but in ways we cannot adequately describe, whom we cannot see or touch or often even imagine? In contrast to this impoverished incarnation of individualism take Lacanian political philosopher Alain Badiou:

The communist hypothesis remains the good one, I do not see any other. If we have to abandon this hypothesis, then it is no longer worth doing anything at all in the field of collective action. Without the horizon of communism, without this Idea, there is nothing in the historical and political becoming of any interest to a philosopher. Let everyone bother about his own affairs, and let us stop talking about it. […] However, to hold on to the Idea, to the existence of this hypothesis, does not mean that we should retain its first form of presentation which was centered on property and State. In fact, what is imposed on us as a task, even as a philosophical obligation, is to help a new mode of existence of the hypothesis to deploy itself.

I have turned to Badiou, and returned to the subject of communism, to reach two concluding points. First, because the Cold War is over, because we have defeated the totalitarian strains of communism of the 20th century and are left now with multiple soft socialist democratic republics in which basic social-democratic principles underlie most acts of the body politic, to remain united against what is perceived as a threat to “America” as such, to the abstract America of which Cindy McCain is so proud, we transfer the strong-other, enemy status formerly assigned communists to dissenters as such: it is no longer communists who are said to hate freedom and democracy, but those who speak against the state as such. In other words, the days when someone could be derided as pink or red for opposing the state are over; the derision directed toward today’s dissenters, lacking the coherent form it had in communism, is diffuse and dangerous. We must, as Badiou says here, cease to admit the notion that we can conceptualize ourselves as intrinsically bound together only by measures associated with combating the communist disasters of the 20th century, most significantly Stalinism, and instead devise a new blueprint for a material manifestation of the dream of fraternal societal interdependence, of a truly Christian—in the sense of caritas, of Greek-cum-Christian charity—national and world community. Second, while we can and should take pride in the defeat of communism most all of its 20th-century forms, we can take such pride in them only as specific defeats: as of Stalinism, whose egregious failings do not, as Badiou says, damn the “communist hypothesis” as such—which I submit we must work to reframe as a universally Christian, socialist democratic hypothesis. Such a hypothesis need not bear the travesties of the 20th century communist experiments on its shoulders. Indeed, the “patriotism” of Cindy McCain—in its Cold War-tinted anti-communism—is synonymous with an almost Stalinist adherence to ideology that is more “anti-democratic” and, to the extent conservatives conflate “democratic” and “American” to lend “Americanism” a spirit of inevitability and universality, more “anti-American” in nature than Michelle Obama’s truly straight talk.
Let us make this connection more often: let us actively illuminate the aping of authoritarian communist regimes in the ideological posture and posturing of the right. Let us paint McCain and Co. into that dark corner of a historical legacy and—ideally in concert with political, psychological, and societal shifts occasioned over the coming decades by Barack Obama’s election to the presidency—begin in earnest to articulate a socialist democratic politics of Christian charity and what might be termed, if partially in jest and only for the moment, Obamanian candor.


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