COVER/ESSAY

AN UNEASY PATRIOTISM

FERVENT U.S. FLAG-WAVING MASKS AN UNDERCURRENT OF INSECURITY

MARCI MCDONALD November 7 1988
COVER/ESSAY

AN UNEASY PATRIOTISM

FERVENT U.S. FLAG-WAVING MASKS AN UNDERCURRENT OF INSECURITY

MARCI MCDONALD November 7 1988

AN UNEASY PATRIOTISM

COVER

ESSAY

FERVENT U.S. FLAG-WAVING MASKS AN UNDERCURRENT OF INSECURITY

MARCI MCDONALD

“Nothing is more embarrassing, in the ordinary intercourse of life, than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.” —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835.

The setting was as American as—well—apple pie. On the outskirts of Jackson, Tenn., a crowd of 10,000 had gathered in the gigantic parking lot of a turn-of-the-century theme park called Casey Jones Village, clutching tiny American flags. Against the nostalgic backdrop of the oldtime Country Store, singer Chet Atkins was delivering his twangy rendition of Would Jesus Wear a Rolex? as a warm-up act for the show’s real star, Vice-President George Bush. Not a cloud blemished the blue Tennessee sky. But even on that picture-postcard autumn afternoon, peach farmer Thomas Anderson sensed a lurking threat—an alien menace that had given him a clear distaste for Bush’s rival, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. “I don’t like Dukakis’s name,” he said. “It’s foreign. It just doesn’t sound American.”

Pledge: In the final week of a campaign that has blanketed itself in ever more massive displays of patriotic bunting and indulged in almost hourly recitations of the pledge of allegiance, Anderson’s observation prompts some questions. What is American, after all? What does the United States stand for as it gropes its way through the mudslinging and mind-numbing rhetoric that has characterized this year’s 41st presidential election? What is the country’s mood, its dreams and fears?

To a Canadian who has spent the better part of this past year on the election trail, the answers are as complex as they are contradictory. Unparalleled problems confront the country: a trillion-dollar deficit and its newly acquired distinction as the world’s leading debtor nation. Three million homeless roam its city streets and the infant-mortality rate last year ranked as the highest in the industrialized world. But the electorate has shown no appetite for bad news. Last month, over a diet lunch at a $370-a-day luxury spa outside Tucson, Ariz., a plump 32-year-old New Yorker flashed her diamond-encrusted manicure and announced: “Michael Dukakis scares me. I’m voting for my pocketbook.”

Issues: From coast to coast, voters complain that the candidates have failed to address the tough issues. But Dukakis triumphed in the Democratic primaries specifically on a strategy of vagueness, and crowds have rewarded Bush with thunderous applause every time he rails against “that old liberal-Democrat talk of malaise.” Bush’s own speeches celebrate the fact that flag sales are up. And in Amarillo, an auditorium of Texans chose to ignore Democratic leaflets detailing how Republican vicepresidential nominee Dan Quayle had consistently voted against the state’s ailing oil industry. Instead, hands over their hearts, they rose and cheered him through all four verses of the national anthem, followed by America the Beautiful and an unabridged version of Why I’m Proud to Be an American—10 minutes of patriotic fervor that proceeded uninterrupted as the barbecued beef on their banquet plates congealed into cold red slabs.

But beneath all the feel-good rhetoric and flag-waving, there lurks an undercurrent of insecurity and suspicion. Americans sense their once-proud place in the world threatened by puzzling and inexorable forces, their economic dominance challenged by foreign industrial upstarts, and their military might called into question by a decade of international humiliations. In the campaign, that sense of fragility has emerged in denunciations of allies who ought to be forced to pay their fair share of the NATO defence bill and of foreigners buying up the country on the cheap. Foreign investors now own 10 per cent of the U.S. manufacturing base, 20 per cent of its banks and 33 per cent of the prime real estate in the nation’s capital alone. Dukakis has warned ominously that “foreign companies and foreign governments are beginning to control our economic destiny.” Bush scolded him for trying to fan the flames of xenophobia—a fear that might well concern Canadians on the brink of an historic free trade agreement. But some analysts, such as New York banker Felix Rohatyn, defended Dukakis’s message as an inevitable twist on the prevailing campaign theme: economic patriotism.

Alien: Still, like the more traditional brand of patriotism, it seems to reflect a growing distrust of anything alien. In fact, in a nation that celebrates the immigrant’s success story as the essence of its national dream, Michael Dukakis, who had planned to ride to the White House as its embodiment, may soon realize that the myth is often prized more highly than the reality. Wrote Boston columnist Steven Stark: “By constantly stressing his Greek roots, Dukakis has set himself up for a collision with a competing sentiment we rarely tend to acknowledge: we are a nation that still worships the WASP ideal.”

Rally: The old American order of that ideal is changing, but the more it does so, the more it has prompted forebodings about the future. At a late-afternoon rally on the banks of the Sacramento River in northern California— with the Sierra Nevada Mountains towering over distant Whiskeytown in shades of rose and gold—miner Glen Adams summed up the election in two words: gun control. The issue in fact has less to do with who becomes president than who might become county sheriff. But in a country where the National Rifle Association last week began distributing its coloring books to kindergarten pupils, it carries volatile emotional baggage. In NRA-sponsored commercials on a country-music station, Adams had heard actor Charlton Heston—the thundering cinematic voice of Moses from The Ten Commandments—warn that Michael Dukakis wanted to take away his guns. The threat had awakened a primal frontier fear. “Without guns, people are ripe to be raped,” said Adams. “They can end up with a totalitarian government.” Adams’s enemy was nameless, faceless. But others, too, share his sense that it is there, hunkering just over the horizon, waiting to shred the national fabric. From time to time, politicians have called on the rituals and trappings of patriotism to ward off those fears, just as an Indian shaman brandishes his bag of tricks to banish evil spirits. In fact, according to historian Daniel Boorstin, the periodic outbursts of unabashed boosterism that have punctuated American history have been less a measure of the country’s pride than of its uncertainties. Writes Boorstin in The Americans-. “The hazier the outlines of the nation, the more necessary the language of reassurance.” Most of the patriotic symbols littering the campaign were only devised years after the American Revolution to provide a sort of national glue. The Stars and Stripes did not flutter in its present design uniformly over the landscape until 1912; Congress did not adopt Francis Scott Key’s national anthem until 1931. The pledge of allegiance—which Bush lambasted Dukakis for not forcing on the classrooms of Massachusetts with the reprimand, “What would the Founding Fathers think?”— was not penned until 1892, long after those gentlemen were dead. And while Bush has presented it as a litmus test of true conservative faith, it was in fact written by Francis Bellamy, a socialist.

Crisis: In the dark days of national impotence that followed the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan dusted off the symbols and applied them as a balm to the wounded American psyche. With evocations of the country’s greatness repeated like a mantra, he restored its good opinion of itself. Above all else, the shape of this year’s presidential campaign is his legacy. After eight years with an actor in the White House, the electorate has become accustomed to the notion of imagemaking. There is no outcry when a candidate is cocooned away from news conferences or public accountability. In the post-Reagan era, perception has almost become reality. But in the smoke-and-mirrors kingdom, nobody quite believes anything. A poll reported in November’s Parents magazine revealed that only 10 per cent of respondents think politicians are telling the truth.

Peace and prosperity is the slogan Bush is selling. But the underpinnings of his prosperity may prove, as most scholars predict, decidedly shaky. It seems à perfect commentary on the campaign that Bush’s favorite theme song is the current pop hit, Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Writer-singer Bobby McFerrin, a Dukakis supporter, has protested its appropriation by hostile Republican forces. But he is also mystified at why Bush would want to play it publicly—the lyrics chronicle a litany of financial disasters. “The landlord says your rent is late,” sings McFerrin, “he may have to litigate.” In fact, anyone listening to the words soon realizes that the title refrain is an ironic counterpoint, a send-up of blind optimism. Bush aides themselves laugh at the audacity of their joke. They know full well that, in this year’s presidential race, nobody seems to be listening to the words, only to the devil-may-care music.