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Eye on the United States
“I’ve seen a lot of patriots,” Hemingway wrote in a letter, “...and their patriotism was only good for legends; it was bad for their prose and made them write bad poetry.”
Looking at the bookshop shelves in America these days, one sees some patriots and a corresponding assault on prose in the country. Read My America, a collection edited by Hugh Downs of short writings by famous people, including Alan Alda and Barbara Walters. The foreword states, among other things, that America “has qualities that make it superior to any other country from the standpoint of values.” This is why, Downs says, “we have a duty of some sort to sell its structure and philosophy to other cultures.”
Or read What’s So Great About America, written by Dinesh D’Souza. There one finds, after an attack on the critical attitude of the French toward America, insults about why the majority of Americans find it difficult to take the French criticism seriously, “coming as it does from men who carry handbags.” And elsewhere, a line of conviction: “Americans do not need to apologize for the fact that their country acts abroad in a way that is good for them.”
Prose gets bad when it has no question marks, commas, and brackets. What is formed is not just monotony, but stagnancy. This will continue as long as nobody else is allowed to confront the writer, firmly and intelligently. In other words, there is no other point of view stopping the conversation, challenging opinions, or offering other alternatives.
Hugh Downs’ foreword in My America has never clashed with the argument that might say, for instance, that those “other cultures” are really not wholly in “non-American” territory. Or that those who wish to crush the secular nature of American society are not only outsiders, but also right-wing militant Christians, whom Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times calls “all-American Osamas.”
Patriotism becomes articulated through passion, and passion can indeed spur the emergence of stirring words. But there is a moment in patriotism that also drives a writer to enter the pit of worn-out phrases. I think moments like these happen once a sense of patriotism no longer has pain.
What’s So Great About America is an example of patriotism without pain, so too My America. They are both convinced that “my-America” is a “great” country; they are both examples of narcissism putting up a huge mirror, applauding itself unceasingly; they both deny the existence of differences, of conflict, of an America that has been plentiful in mistakes.
What’s So Great About America can’t help being bad prose, for its patriotism takes the short, straight road: It is easy indeed to love a country that is “so great.” What is not easy is to love a country that is fragile, love with sadness—a complicated love that is at times threatened, at times despairing, and yet felt constantly, without any hope.
A painful patriotism does not move aggressively out into the world. Mahatma Gandhi emerged from the suffering and contempt that so wounded India. He demonstrated that one does not have to stop loving one’s own country and nation to love others outside its borders.
Why has the United States produced no Gandhi after the 9/11 terror, only dozens of pieces of bad prose? Maybe because that terror did not incise a deep, widespread pain—only a sense of offense, threat, and anger. There were even some people who seem to have gotten enlightened. Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations last February, admitted, with seeming concern, that prior to Sept. 11, 2001, “There was no single, immediate, global threat.” But then the 9/11 terror hit, and what was not there before came about: “The threat is known and our role is clear now.”
In other words, the screams of around 3,000 people in Manhattan have turned into the cry of “Eureka!” And, as in all bad prose, no one is asking the question: Is it the enemy that produced patriotism, or patriotism that produced the enemy?
Carl Schmitt, a political analyst and member of the Nazi party, would say that in “the political,” enemies are a necessity. The continuity of a political structure is determined by that enmity. States are organized by the constant possibility of conflict, which always exists in the midst of uncertainty. “The challenge,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote in the magazine Foreign Affairs, is to “defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, and the unexpected.”
A note for Hemingway: It turns out that it is not only patriotism that makes bad prose, but paranoia, too.
The author, founding editor of Tempo, is a leading Indonesian journalist, poet, and essayist. He received WPR’s 1998 International Editor of the Year award.