5 Comments

Patriotism…is a word which always commemorates a robbery

Food for thought from Mark Twain’s Notebook:

Talking of patriotism what humbug it is; it is a word which always commemorates a robbery. There isn’t a foot of land in the world which doesn’t represent the ousting and re-ousting of a long line of successive “owners,” who each in turn, as “patriots” …defended it against the next gang of “robbers” who came to steal it and did – and became swelling-hearted patriots in their turn.

I’m listening to the audiobook of Michael Medved’s The 10 Big Lies About America: Combating Destructive Distortions About Our Nation. (This is the audiobook I mentioned in an earlier post.) Medved uses that Mark Twain quote – or a version of it that I can’t track back to an original source, since Medved’s version is inverted (with the first sentence last) and missing a bracket and an ellipsis – in a chapter called “Big Lie #1: America Was Founded on Genocide Against Native Americans.” Medved uses this quote to support his claim that early U.S. policies toward Native Americans replicated “age-old patterns” of “encounters between peoples at vastly different stages of development,” including the Ainu/Utari in Japan, the Aborigines in Australia, and “other isolated, primitive groups forced to confront modernity.”

The thing is, that passage from Mark Twain’s Notebook goes further than Medved’s quote. Twain was writing about his time in Transvaal (South African Republic), just a few years before the Second Boer War that pitted the British against the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers. Twain writes,

Talking of patriotism what humbug it is; it is a word which always commemorates a robbery. There isn’t a foot of land in the world which doesn’t represent the ousting and re-ousting of a long line of successive “owners,” who each in turn, as “patriots” …defended it against the next gang of “robbers” who came to steal it and did – and became swelling-hearted patriots in their turn. And this Transvaal, now, is full of patriots, who by the help of God, who is always interested in these things, stole the land from the feeble blacks…

Ron Powers, in his Mark Twain: A Life, says Twain’s “ultimate sympathies in this conflict…were clear, and they lay with neither the Boers nor the British, but with the indigenous people that each side dispossessed.” Medved, in contrast, seems to argue that sympathizing with the oppressed peoples in our country’s past amounts to America-bashing. In chapters one and two of The 10 Big Lies, chapters on the Native Americans and slavery, respectively, Medved doesn’t try to defend the indefensible. Instead, he makes the case that because the United States wasn’t uniquely guilty of slavery and crimes against indigenous people – it was just the way of the world – modern Americans shouldn’t waste time apologizing for past sins or trying to make reparations.

Neither the expanded quote nor Ron Powers’s analysis of it disqualifies Medved from enlisting Twain in support of his point, but it’s indicative of my frustration with the book, and with all books, talk radio shows, and cable news channels like it: they are too willing to sacrifice context and complexity to further a political agenda. The United States is nothing if not a conversation, built around ongoing dialogues with each other, with our past, and with our ideals. Good conversation requires a respect for context.

I would have liked to see Michael Medved use Twain’s quote, at least in part, to advocate for a humbler, more honest, more complex patriotism. Something along these lines from my favorite Wendell Berry poem:

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.

Instead, the whole tenor of Medved’s book so far is that Americans must either feel pride for their country, or shame.

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5 comments on “Patriotism…is a word which always commemorates a robbery

  1. John, your point that Medved apparently took this quote out of context is pretty well-substantiated. That said, your main accusation that he is “willing to sacrifice context and complexity to further a political agenda” is, by my observation, a good way to describe many, probably most, commentators and loudmouths on the Left as well as the Right, along with various folks in between who happen to have an agenda on some issue they happen to champion. No single group of people has a monopoly on this trait.
    –James Williams

    • I couldn’t agree more, James. That was somewhat my point in a previous post, which I linked to in this post.

      I grew up a major dittohead, often taping Rush Limbaugh’s show during the day so I could listen to it a second time in the evening. I was a fervent Republican until I was about 26 and then a Democrat for two years after that. But for the last six years I have chosen to live in the tension of the politically unaffiliated. I realized that if someone knew I was a Republican or a Democrat, they would try to pigeonhole me or dismiss my ideas outright because of a party label. Party membership is less important to me than the conversation that was often short-circuited by that membership. Thus you can see that the political agenda I champion, to borrow your language, is one of conversation. There is a great line in the TV show “West Wing” that I’ve always loved: “We’re going to raise the level of public discourse in this country and let that be our legacy.”

      Michael Medved is better than most talk radio hosts – from either side of the political spectrum – at keeping the conversation respectful, and he seems to take for granted his audience’s intelligence. I like that. Perhaps that’s why this book has been so frustrating. Medved is obviously brilliant and he is a gifted communicator; I just wish he would trust the readers of this book with more complete and complex (or at least representative) versions of the story. In this respect, chapters one and two are particularly disappointing.

  2. Dear John, you have challenged the paradigm of a great many American Christians and they will not thank you for it. I love that you have jeopardized your popularity and so boldly spoken out about this issue. I really, really appreciate your post.

    • Davey, you are way too kind. Thanks as always for your encouragement, and keep up the good work with your Merika poem cycle.

  3. […] face is absurd or maniacal. My biggest criticism of Medved, which I also mentioned in a previous post, is his uncomplicated patriotism. Stephen Decatur, the early American naval hero, once gave the […]

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