Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Deficit of Patriotic Imagery

For the Fourth of July I meant to write a patriotic post taking down crude denunciations of so-called "blood and soil" conservatives, but by way of Daniel Larison I discover that Chris Roach has beat me to it. He even cites the same three songs I would have cited.

Patriotic anthems shouting praises to our landscapes and to our ancestors easily refute the cheap "Blut und Boden" smears attempted every so often by idolators of the civil religion. Such writers show an outright disdain for soil, preferring ethereal principles of governance to the peoples and the country which begat such principles. They often present newly-sworn citizens as the civic superiors of the native-born, invariably insulting the loyalty of life-long Americans. They are the nationalist counterparts to the campus leftists who discover all varieties of bigotry in the unwashed masses. Little wonder there is a backlash against immigration.

But in unexpected ways. This weekend I attended mass at a small mountain parish in the Fraser River Valley. The recessional hymn, if that is the right word, was in fact America the Beautiful. I am always wary of mixing civil religion with the real kind. This same parish once sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic, whose peans to the divine qualities of the Union Army should be wince-inducing even to non-Southerners like myself. Yet despite America the Beautiful's questionable liturgical fitness, there was an added power to the hymn's lines "purple mountains majesty" because, gazing over the altar through the church's rear window, my eyes were fixed upon one of the towering blue peaks encircling the valley. That land is my land, that land is our land.

Looking through the later verses, one worries America the Beautiful shows signs of a relic from another era, like Perry Como's song I Wanna Go Home With You Tonight or Jimmy Durante's A Husband--A Wife. First, to state the obvious, the anthem is a prayer for divine assistance, a certified secularist-repellent if there ever was one. Second, it depicts America as flawed, a country incomplete. Sloganeering descriptions of America as "the greatest nation on God's green earth" cannot find much of an ally here. The lines "Confirm thy soul in self-control,/Thy liberty in law!" strikes hard at the antinomial and libertine ideals for the country. "Till selfish gain no longer stain/The banner of the free!" doesn't bode well for the cruder advocates of globalism, market capitalism, and self-interest wrongly understood. Finally, we find the lines

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

While maintaining a hopeful spirit, this song is a certain rebuke of utopianism. The best of cities is an aspirational dream, not an imminent state of life. These cities are beyond the temporal sphere and achievable only through a penitent populace beseeching divine intervention. Even in a multi-confessional nation, the song almost translates naked civic deism into "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done."

How do we explain the paucity of contemporary civic hymnody? Aside from a general decline in musical and lyrical talents, an overemphasis on abstract thought and the dimunition of concrete deeds seems a likely culprit.

Depersonalizing tendencies are one of the greatest weakness of abstraction. Concepts personified, as exemplified by Lady Liberty, seem stark and inhuman. In the case of liberty, this is likely a side-effect of our impoverished understanding of what freedom is for. Yet other modern political concepts would fare just as poorly when personified. Tolerance brings to mind an unflattering portrait of a woman who, though having a polite, forced smile on her face, holds her nose as various odors offend it. Diversity could not be expressed in a single personification except as caricature--a thousand-headed hydra with a teratomatic torso. When one asks how Equality could be depicted in statuary, the mind boggles.

The older concepts, which in truth are not concepts but virtues, lack this problem because they are habits, activities directed towards the good. Since captured activity is the aim of portraiture, the old virtues flourish when personified. Bougereau's Charity shows a tired mother nevertheless suckling and sheltering her demanding brood. Justice, though blinded, bears a sword and scales--her action is imminent, her judgement fearsome. Lady Liberty only threatens a torch-burn, if she can ever shed her paralysis.

It is no accident that Plato's Republic used the image of a human being writ large to discern the characteristics of justice, since virtues have no substance independent of acting persons. Likewise, patriotism has no substance without a people and its patria. A country's early heroes and the landscape on which they once walked are all objects of common patriotic love. One cannot love a mental principle like "all men are created equal" any more than one can admire an ideal triangle. National Anthem are love songs powered not by principles but by images and imagery. Philosophy begins in wonder, and so does poetry. The patriotic imagination approaches the tangible while political principle, as interpreted by its modern devotees, approaches the undetectable. No wonder the older tradition has better songs and stronger loyalties.

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