|Illustration by Winston Smith|
When the country is confused and in chaos, loyal ministers appear.
In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey, outlaw and patriot, advises the reader of his sublime elegy for the Arches National Monument, in Utah, not to “jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke . . . In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.”
Abbey, with characteristic snarl, was telling even his fans, go find your own place. Go peel the skin off your own knuckles. Creep along your own canyons or alleys. Light your own campfire. Make up your own stories. After wintering in an icebox Park Service house trailer in a no man’s land past the end of a dirt road, Abbey knew that nothing is of value until it flows through your bloodstream and haunts your dreams. Anything less is an abstraction, a tourist’s souvenir, the sort of keepsake your descendants will happily toss out because it really wasn’t worth passing along — Antiques Roadshow or no.
In other words, to know the land is to truly love it, and there is no shortcut — or Marine Corps flag-raising ceremony — that will impart a bone-deep appreciation for our nation. And, without that appreciation, you will be just another empty-headed, loudmouthed patriot, chanting hosannas to a pillar of sand. Or a spokesman for the American way of life — overwork interrupted by mall crawling and gas-guzzling vacations.
Another way of saying this is that without a sense of inhabited place, of somewhere to call home — somewhere that needs no other name, that has no flag to salute — damn little will sustain you when it comes time, as Jefferson said, to water the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants. The ideals of liberty, of justice, of brotherhood — the founding principles we commemorate every Fourth of July — cannot have meaning without an attachment to a landscape. That landscape might be our city, township, square, block, café, tree, or a place as far off as Abbey’s Moab Desert or as buried as David Brower’s beloved Glen Canyon. Each contains the memories, as Walt Whitman said, of “all life and all the souls of men and women” that lived there.
When those memories fade, we lose our toehold on the soil, real and metaphorical, that we occupy. Places become as indistinguishable as one Starbucks from another, as one downtown from another, and our ability to defend our republic against its enemies, from NBC to al Qaeda, diminishes. We aren’t even sure what we are defending: Donald Trump and The Apprentice? Habeas corpus? A latte grande? (Perhaps this explains why we are so baffled by the seeming ingratitude of Iraqis for their “liberation,” and why our soldiers find it so easy to dehumanize their captives. Iraqis keep history close, their land even closer. Our history is distorted in a haze of rhetoric drawn from a ninth-grade textbook, our land at such a disconnect that we don’t have the slightest idea, or care, about where our food is grown.) No wonder we complain that the infidels are in full possession.
Patriotism, in other words, is a tricky business. The poet Robinson Jeffers, perhaps, understood this best. He was deeply suspicious of easy avowals, and quite rightly. In 1925, while F. Scott Fitzgerald was distilling the era of bootleg and humbug, Jeffers looked coolly at his homeland and composed the verses of “Shine, Perishing Republic.” His mood ran contrary to the spirit of the Roaring ’20s, as he warned that liberty requires marrow, not money, to thrive. His imagery is still apt:
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth . . .
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is a trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught — they say — God, when he walked on earth.
Jeffers’ pessimism should not be put down to misanthropy. He is telling all would-be patriots, who, by definition, love (their country): You must keep a wary eye. You must stand apart from the crowd. You must rely on your own counsel. You must protest, even in futility. This is an uneasy, perhaps hopeless, stance. Yet, these are the qualities of character that form the barricades between us and empire — a moldering condition that Jeffers identified 25 years before reality caught up and made us a nation of consumers, not citizens; militarists, not republicans.
What can sustain these necessary attributes other than an attachment to place of the kind that Abbey describes? A citizenry jealous of its liberty, its independence, its autonomy and its traditions of democracy lives within a geography drawn and written with its own footprints. This is the foundation of true civics. Brand loyalty won’t get the job done. Nor will waving the flag at anti-war protests.
We do not need more symbols, or the one-upmanship that patriotism usually spawns. We need our asphalt streets and our steel-truss bridges, our granite peaks and our swampy bottomlands, our disenfranchised shantytowns and our Capitol dome, to locate ourselves. We need to know, bone-deep, where, and what, our home is. Then we won’t need self-avowed patriots. We’ll just be them, without the nomenclature. And chances are we won’t be easily fooled either by a dull muttering “war president,” shrill squawking talk-show hosts, alarmed wailing homeland-security specialists, or incessant cooing pitchmen selling the good life through easy credit.