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Thursday, July 24, 2003
Jesse responded to my post about the curious squeamishness about patriotism and the flag on the political and cultural left by mentioning that in the 70's the Grateful Dead were big into the idea that they were an American band, and their public personas involved a lot of flag iconography and "mutant patriotism." I responded by saying that this trend had always made me feel a little weird, like they were just pandering to the white baseball cap kids who had put me off the Dead in the first place, but that flags were all over the late 60's / early 70's counterculture: Hendrix's rendition of the anthem, Peter Fonda's helmet, etc.; certainly more than today. Jesse replied that "the more I think about it, the whole 'America is beautiful, man' philosophy was pretty central to Kerouac and Ginsberg (who was way into Whitman)."

Good point. It's interesting to see how unabashedly folks who were, if anything, more radical than many of us middlebrow modern leftists embraced the flag and everything that came with it--or, more accurately, made something new out of it. (This will be the only good thing I'll say about the baby boomers today.) And I can't help but think that this had something to do with their education. Wrongheaded as the mainstream views about America may have been in the 50's, it's clear that just as the ill-gotten prosperity they protested allowed the boomers to have the freedom to engage in political and cultural insurgency, so did the America-is-great conformism of their education nevertheless have an effect--mostly positive, I think--on their thinking. While it doesn't seem all that weird for these paragons of the counterculture to be talking about how great America is and hitting the road, it does seem weird when contrasted with the total lack of America-can-be-kinda-neat attitudes among the kids who were raised by said paragons and their disciples. We'd never wave a flag to save our life, and the only hitting-the-road we do is done out of a weird sense of kitch. And this seems undeniably due to the fact that the boomers decided that educating us with any love of America or the American system would be conservative and repressive and like that (c.f. "The Language Police"). And while I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad thing ("Why're all them blacks and Mexicans in Jimmy's textbook?"), I do think it's something we should overcome if we desire political efficacy. Rebellion makes it easier to evolve a political consciousness, but it's certainly possible even in the absence of something to rebel against.

For a good example of this contrast and the problems thereof, let's look at the guy who sprung to mind when I read Jesse's response: Willie Nelson. Here's a guy who comes out of Austin (a current HQ of the counterculture) and revolutionizes country music, smokes a lot of pot and is pretty much a bumming-around musician, but he manages to both retain credibility with a large swatch of Americans and the elite while also talking honestly about his love for America and supporting the Democrats. This guy is a model of what we're looking for, patriotism-wise.

But let's contrast him with another noted Austinian, one who revolutionized comedy and was a happy exemplar of the counterculture: Bill Hicks. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Bill, just like I love a lot of cultural heroes who would be way uncomfortable with the flag. (Which flag Hicks has hilariously proposed should be revised to show your parents fucking.) But I don't really like the kneejerk anti-Americanism that seems to be such a part of his act. Bill has an undeniable love for humanity, but the problem with this broadness is that it overlooks the details and he ends up hating a lot of actual people--and yeah, it's hatred. Some people regard this attitude as a brave thing or an honest thing, but to me, the far more brave thing would be to question this attitude among the people who agree with him and find a way to actually bring in the people he hates. I love a lot of his jokes, but his cultural critiques can be pretty shallow and needlessly absolutist. The whole "you people are sheep!" thing. Like, here's a bit from a review:

Hicks scripted a rousing fight song with the intent of impugning everything unholy and dangerous in the world of capitalism. Foremost on the list was the evil known as laziness. Not laziness in the casually procrastinating sense, but rather the much graver error of cultural indolence. Essentially, people who've grown weary of their power to discern submit to the demands of fictional authoritative figures (i.e. media) who dictate their tastes, interests, opinions, and beliefs.

What results from this "dumbing down" is a culture of people who have forgotten how to judge correctly. A group of people-- some of whom are reading this review-- that find themselves on the wet end of a degenerate culture. A culture erected from the cancerous mutation of hype machines, spin, and an elitist social sect designed to capitalize on the acquiescence of its members. These same idle sheep find themselves flocking to inferior merchandise simply to nestle snuggly within an arbitrary hipness quotient, and because of the concomitant satisfaction in rallying behind mediocre products with strong PR.

Icky. That puts me off way more than a guy waving a flag right now. I dunno. I guess Hicks' attitude is better than that of folks who agree with Toby Keith, but it still seems like it's missing something important.

A good patriotism, to me--one that looks past all the current signifiers of the flag toward what it could become--is not unlike a good Christianity, a Voeglin-esque one. Hicks, like a lot of lefty activists and cultural heroes, have a kind of idealistic utopianism that regards anything less than utopia as debased, and anything debased as bad and not worth bothering with. But if a true Christianity would contend with the now because paradise has not come yet, then a good patriotism would recognize the good in the American system and the way that mostly-shared set of beliefs unites us, even if we look like dumb rednecks or whatever. It would be able to look past all the things other people say about it and make something new.

(incidentally, Salon published my letter about that, along with some pretty giggle-worthy activist griping about the Gitlin interview)