Patriotism is Particular

Jason Micheli —  February 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

Brooks-Robinson-1970True love (charity) is particular, tied to specific emotional attachments. To people. To places. To tastes and memories. Here is how David Bentley Hart, one of my former teachers and object of a man crush on my part, articulates what it means to be patriotic:

Love of country is most ennobling, I think, when it is most concrete, and when it rises up out local loyalties, particular experiences, and natural customs. Otherwise, it has only the quality of appreciation, or even of reverence, but not of the profoundest emotional attachment. So, well before my gratitude for the rule of law and the constitutional limit on government powers, come a number of more personal fidelities: my love of baseball, Ella Fitzgerald (especially the recordings done for Verve), and the voice of Renée Fleming, for instance. Also Maryland crab cakes (which are impossible to find anywhere but in Maryland), Maryland soft-shell crabs, Maryland crab bisque, Maryland oyster stew, Maryland oyster pie, Chesapeake oysters on the shell, and Chesapeake rockfish (very good when stuffed with crab or served with fresh oysters).

Of course, I should not neglect to mention Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis (up to a point). Or the songs of Harold Arlen (America’s greatest songwriter), Cole Porter, and the Gershwins; also the lyrics of Johnny Mercer. And Ella Fitzgerald. Jimmy Rushing also. Renée Fleming and baseball. The films of John Ford (above all) and of Howard Hawks, John Huston, and Preston Sturges. The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bogart, Ginger Rogers, and Ava Gardner (let me pause on that last one for a moment, in order to heave a deep sigh).

The memory of Brooks Robinson lunging madly at a fair ball veering out of reach into foul territory, gloving it, and somehow throwing across the diamond in time; or of Paul Blair, playing so shallow he could almost turn a double play at second, still running down a deep line drive over his head and catching it on the warning track; and of Frank Robinson hitting a home run with a violence that made one wonder whether the ball had once insulted his mother.

Our marvelous landscapes, of course: the deep deciduous forests of the Appalachians, the forever changing colors of the Chesapeake Bay, the Western mountains and plains and deserts, and all the rest. And there are few sights in nature as glorious as Autumn in North America, especially the Northeast. The keening of coyotes at night, the sweet terse trill of the Baltimore Oriole, the belling of Eastern tree frogs, that uncanny noise the black bear who lives in the culvert behind my house makes. And the greatest of our cities: New Orleans, Charleston, and Manhattan. The sight of the Chrysler Building bathed in crepuscular scarlet. And all the Civil War battlefields.

Our greatest nineteenth century writers, too, of course: Melville, Hawthorne, William James (and occasionally Henry), Thoreau, Emerson, Henry Adams, Crane, Bierce, Twain, and Jones Very (though I confess I am a heretic when it comes to Dickinson, Whitman, and Poe). Our best modern poets: Stevens, Frost, and Wilbur, and sometimes Pound and Lowell. The Adventures of Augie March, the prose of John Updike (though, strangely enough, not the actual novels in which it is found, and certainly none of those god-awful, dismally anerotic sex scenes). Most of Fitzgerald, a little of the very early Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and all of Nabokov’s American books before Ada.

“Sophisticated Lady” (the greatest popular song ever written), “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”, and “I Shall Be Released” (I would include “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but it was actually written by a Canadian). The recordings of Yo-Yo Ma and Renée Fleming. Southern courtesy, Northeastern candor, Western independence, and Texans (whatever the hell they are). And so on.

Obviously, the list could continue indefinitely. (I hope I remembered to mention baseball and Ella, however. And Renée Fleming, of course.)

Whether, though, everyone would find this adequate or not, I cannot say. Some might still complain that even the most comprehensive and adoring enumeration of the particularities of America still does not amount to a confession of faith in America as a cause, or America as the great historical exception or new human beginning, or America as the ideal destiny of humankind. And indeed it does not. But it is a genuine expression of great love, nonetheless.

And, I would argue, it has the true shape of all love that is rightly ordered. All true charity—love, that is, purged of selfishness and egoism—begins in attachment to what is most intimate and familiar. This is where the soul acquires its first and indispensable tutelage in love, and from which it then ventures out to embrace ever more of reality without forsaking its first loyalty, extending the circle of its sympathy by analogy to its own primordial affections. It is the mirror image, so to speak, of the bonum diffusivum sui, the divine eros (to use the phrase of Dionysius the Areopagite) that proceeds out from itself to give all things freely, and to draw all things back to itself.

The proper love of country, it seems to me, should have the form of this egressusand regressus: a deep attachment to what is near at hand that is still free from any presumptuous belief in the lesser value of things that are far away, and that is therefore able to grow beyond the local towards the universal, beyond the nation to a larger culture, beyond that to other cultures, and ideally towards the embrace of all humanity and all of creation. That is, at any rate, the only kind of patriotism that I fully understand, and that I find it possible to see as a spiritual virtue. And, I may be wrong, but it seems to me also to be a patriotism that, of its nature, should express itself with a certain seemly humility, and an effortless generosity.

You can click here to read his full essay.

Jason Micheli


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