You Only Get One: Gore Vidal, 1925-2012
What is patriotism now, and how do we get rid of it? And what do we put in its place, if anything? The word is politically incorrect, of course. Patria – pater – father. So where is Mom? Didn’t she help Dad turn the American wilderness into a cement desert, bright with golden arches? Didn’t she help Dad kill those pesky redskins? Anyway, whose patria are we talking about? The so-called Indians are the original Americans whose homeland European invaders stole. My own family settled on Cherokee land in South Carolina and Chickasaw land in Mississippi. In due course, the remnants of dozens of tribes were finally dumped on what is now Oklahoma, a place none of us wanted any part of until the oil started a gush at the Osage reservation and my Mississippi-born grandfather made a state out of the last, worst hope of the Choctaws, Sioux and Seminoles.
Certainly it is very hard for most Americans to be patriotic when there is no agreed-upon country to cherish, only warring tribes and, over all, a national security state to keep the lid on. There is one nation for a black, one for a boat-person, a third for a Cherokee, and milk and honey for that one-fifth of the population with money. What we are now witnessing is not so much the disintegration of the United States (less dramatic than that of the Soviet Union, but no less inexorable) as the brand-new realization that we are never going to integrate in order to form a more perfect nation-state of the sort that Bismarck and Lincoln reamed of. There is flight from the center everywhere.
Blacks have been searching out their roots for some time, while the original Americans have never ceased to honor their tribal ghosts — just about all that we have left them. Hispanics now live in blithe, unassimilated enclaves in what Mexicans still refer to as occupied lands, seized by us from Mexico. Meanwhile, American Jews gaze raptly upon their recently exhumed homeland half a world away from North America, and though most of them sensibly refuse to go there to live, the rest of us finance this land that other Jews have occupied.
Is it any wonder that, in the absence of an agreed-upon nation, our many tribes are unfurling their standards and casting ever wider the webs of kinship for mutual support and defense against the state that no one loves? Suddenly, all our turkeys are coming home to roost; and the skies are dark with their unlovely wings while the noise of their gobbling makes hideous Sunday television.
As there was famously no there there in Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, so there is no here here, and to try to do something about it is to misread the times that we live in. We can do nothing at all. Jefferson foresaw the eventual degradation of our system, and he suggested that we hold a constitutional convention once a generation. But neither our rulers nor their hapless critics will allow such a thing. (“You see, they will take away the Bill of Rights”; plainly, it is more seemly to allow the Supreme Court to take it away.)
So, center-less, we now begin to fall apart. Meanwhile, the clans are gathering. If the state be bad, then each tribe must protect itself, and we shall exchange the world of Jefferson for that of Hobbes. In due course, the idea of the nation-state may become as obsolete as the nation-state, in fact, already is. Russia is more mirror of us — or we of it — than either cares to admit. In any case, it will be the collapse of the world’s already skewed economy that will make for great change, not the firing of a patriot’s gun at some national security fort.