Idealistic Basis of Liberal Patriotism

The Osterman WeekendYesterday, I watched Sam Peckinpah’s last film, The Osterman Weekend. It is based on the Robert Ludlum novel. It was only his second novel, and from what I understand, it didn’t make much more sense than the film. But the film really is something to behold. It has the feel of porn, with everyone spying on everyone else. And the last act turns the whole thing into a revenge story, with no real clue as to how the first two acts were meant to facilitate this. And it is a shame, because it has an excellent cast, and I’ve never seen Rutger Hauer so good.

But I want to focus on one little thing in the film. The CIA has decided to get well known liberal television journalist John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) to work for them by convincing him that his three closest friends are KGB agents. Laurence Fassett (John Hurt) thinks he will go for it because of Tanner’s politics. He says, “They say that converts make the greatest zealots. He’s more American and Americans. He’s a bigot about truth, democracy, justice.” I think that’s exactly true. The most liberal among us are the biggest believers in those grammar school civics lessons.

For a long time, I thought that conservatives were the same way. But I can’t say that’s true anymore. Conservatism is all about tribalism and hierarchy. America is not great because of its ideals or the things it does; for the conservative, America is great because it is America. And this is why we get this endless parade of jingoism — the constant call for us to use our military to crush some other group or country. I do see in this a certain naive idealism: the assumption that America is great for some vague and gauzy reason.

But if you aren’t willing to pull back the gauze and focus clearly on the reality, then all your patriotism is nothing more than chauvinism. And I wonder if there isn’t a deeper understanding that to look too closely at what America actually is would shatter the illusion. Maybe such naive conservatism is, at base, just the Dick Cheney kind of cynical conservatism. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. Because you can’t love something if you refuse to see it. That’s the kind of adolescent “love” that is weaker the more you know of the object.

The film made me wonder if I would rat out my friends if I found they were traitors. It’s hard to get into the mindset of the Cold War, especially knowing what a ridiculous game it was. But I’ve thought very clearly about whether I would rat out a friend involved in a terrorist plot (and I’ve had a few over the years who I could imagine being involved in one), and the answer is that I would. But even there, that’s probably first an act of humanism. It is second an act of patriotism, but only in the John Tanner version of it: being a bigot about truth, democracy, justice.

28 thoughts on “Idealistic Basis of Liberal Patriotism

  1. Terrorist plot? Yeah, turn ’em in. Selling military hardware information to China? No, don’t. But then again that’s two very different kinds of “treason.”

    Here’s another question. Say your friend is planning a terrorist attack with scary people. The truly moral thing to do would be confronting them. “Mitt, I know what you’re planning, and it’s wrong. But you’re my friend and I don’t want you hurt. If you expose the plot to the FBI, you’ll get off easy. If you can’t do this, in 24 hours I will.”

    But giving your friend 24 hours before you turn him in means he might get his scary friends to kill you. What to do? I suppose it depends on the friend. There’s a few I’d take that risk for, others I wouldn’t.

    I’ve read a bit about the Cuban ex-pats lately, and this was a decision many had to face. They knew friends were planning terrorist attacks on Cuba, some quite horrifying. (Hijacking a plane full of Cuba-bound tourists and making it land somewhere inconvenient to passengers is one thing, blowing up the plane is something else, and the Cuban ex-pats did both.)

    All that nonsense aside, I think you’re right about conservative “patriotism” being nothing more than a Jesus fish on one’s car. For the powerful, I think it’s less. It’s like Heil Hitler. “The latest figures are in, we should be able to get away with this new scheme.” “Excellent! See that it is done, and hail Our Nation!” “Yes, Lord Cheney. Praise be to the Gipper and his holy name, I’ll make the calls right now.”

    • I’ve thought about that too. I don’t know. I suppose it does depend. Someone that far gone? Also, depending upon the intention, they might just move things along. I’m sure last week’s attack could have been done weeks before.

  2. Looking closely at what America is really disheartening at times. It has people constantly on TV who spout awful stuff and get more air time than Michael Jordan used to. It has mass shootings so frequently it is next to impossible to believe you will be okay just going to the movies. It has racism, sexism, classism and all sorts of other awful isms.

    Yet…you can change things here. If you don’t like how things are-you have the freedom, regardless of how hard you are fought on it, to make life better. And rarely do you get shot doing so. You can run for office (subjected to some restrictions like age and having your civil rights restored.) You can organize protests that sometimes have actual results. It may take a long time but that time does seem to be shortening.

    It can be really hard to keep fighting for America to be better. And sometimes we backslide but mostly we move forward. That is what makes America great. Maybe even on occasion exceptional. *snickers*

    • I am so tempted to edit your comment and replace “Elizabeth” with “Pollyanna.” One thing that is really great here in America is freedom of speech. Just the same, the way the power elite have gotten around that is by drowning out unpopular speech. It’s always about control. Now we have a kind of control that in chess is called “hypermodern”: you don’t have to be in the center of the board to control the center of the board. Think of 1984. The prols were allowed to do whatever they wanted. If there was a loud-mouth leftist at the bar, fine. If he started getting traction, they would “remove” him. But until then, it was 100% free speech! Still, I’m glad to have the rights I do. There is hope.

      But my concern recently is much more fundamental. I lay it out in an article that I guess comes out later today. In it, I liken humans to spotted hyenas. Our nature is to order hierarchically, and that is not good with a species that develops nuclear weapons.

      • Someone has to remind you two that society is slowly improving. I read about the fights that happened twenty years ago with getting the concept of something like date rape even accepted and then read a new story about how the regressive and awful porn industry immediately took the side of the victims in the James Deen rape accusations.

        It happens in fits and starts but it does happen. And I blame you for making me be so goddamn cheerful about it. I want to be the miser!

        • I fully admit that things are getting better in many ways. Take away all the romanticism from the Spartans, and all I see are Nazis. Other things get worse, like social bonds. Dickens was right: it is always the best and worst of times.

          • Since I find being around actual humans hard to deal with, social bonds may be weakened but I still make new friends. I went to see Krampus with them on Sunday.

            Now there is a movie that had me going “um…right…okay.”

            • Interesting. I’ve always seen my perfect world being working in a back bedroom while a family party is going on in the main house. And I wander out now and then and get my people fix and then go back to working alone. (Actually, holidays are a lot like that, but I’m not in the back bedroom but the kitchen.)

                • Yes. I dare say much of my behavior is rude, but my family is used to it. Almost any event will lead to me reading in a corner. There are much more annoying ways to be rude.

                  • I brought Cards Against Humanity to a holiday party tonight and so yes, yes there are other ways to be really annoying at a party.

                    • On Amazon it said, there are black question cards. A person displays on, and the others use their white cards to make the funniest answer. I don’t see how it is rude or nasty or anything. But I’m sure I just don’t understand the game.

                    • Yeah, it’s a bit crude. But it’s fine. All my friends would like that. I’ve managed to offend away all the rest.

                    • Now they know what to get you for holidays where gift giving is appropriate.

                    • Yeah, but my friends are all over the world. We would have to set up a multi-Skype. What I really want is an extra-large pure black hoodie, although my “CAT: BUILT TOUCH SINCE 1904” standard hoodie has a certain ironic charm.

                    • That is actually fairly simple to get you-how come you don’t have one already?

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