Saturday, July 7, 2018
July 7-8, 2018: The 4th in Focus: 2018 Critical Patriotism
[To celebrate another 4th of July, this week’s series has AmericanStudied different cultural contexts for this very American holiday. Leading up to this special weekend post on critical patriotism!]
On necessary pessimism, and how to push beyond it.
More than once (honestly, probably more than a dozen times) over the last year and a half, I’ve said some variation on “It’s getting hard out here for an optimist.” As of the late March moment in which I’m writing this post, the worst president in American history has an above 40% approval rating, meaning it’s likely that tens of millions of my fellow Americans not only don’t denounce the hourly heinous horrors perpetrated by this man and his administration, but in fact express at least some measure of support for him and them. Whatever we make of the 2016 election and how and why this unqualified immature buffoon won the electorial vote to become the 45th President, the fact of the matter is that more than a year into his term, far far far too many Americans approve of a man who has governed even more outrageously than he campaigned. Even critical optimism can be difficult to maintain in the face of such facts, and in truth, I’ve found myself feeling more pessimistic about America over the last year and a bit than at any prior point in my life. That seems to be an inevitable and necessary response to much of our daily reality.
But when I’m in those moments, I like to remind myself of one of my favorite sentences from one of my favorite sections of one of my favorite novels: “The only thing is: it has never been easy.” The whole point of critical patriotism, as I initially articulated my version of it in this piece for ‘Merica Magazine (based on a Patriot’s Day blog post) and as I argued for it at length in my fourth book, is that it’s a celebration of the nation in the face of—indeed, through engagement with—the most dark and difficult histories and stories, precisely the kinds of moments that make such patriotism far from easy. That aforementioned novel, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), is one of the dozen exemplary works I examine at length in that fourth book, texts that themselves model both the engagement with dark histories and culminating sections and perspectives of critical optimism and patriotism. To put it bluntly, if characters like Silko’s Tayo—and writers like Silko herself—can find their way to critical optimism (or, as I called it in the book’s initial title, hard-won hope) after all that they experience and understand, then a privileged and blessed white male professor like myself has literally no excuse for not finding ways to do so as well.
It goes beyond books, of course. Countless times in the last year and a half, for example, I’ve thought about Ida B. Wells, facing the lynching of her friends, the communal destruction of her newspaper office, and direct threats on her life if she continued her work, and choosing to publish her first anti-lynching book in precisely that darkest moment. I’m not for a second comparing myself to Wells, to be clear—just highlighting one of the most courageous and inspiring moments of critical patriotism in the face of darkness I’ve ever encountered. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is one of those highly over-used and clichéd phrases, but it nonetheless does capture a fundamental truth that Wells and her many fellow exemplary critical patriots from across American history illustrate. In tough times like these, pessimism is perhaps inevitable and necessary but also easy—and the only thing it, it has never been easy. Time to get back to work!
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?