[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to talk about my new book in a number of settings, and as always every such talk has led to distinct and interesting follow-up questions and ideas. So this week I’ll reflect on those continuing conversations, leading up to a special July 4th weekend post on the state of patriotism in 2021!]
On how the coincidental timing of the year’s first book talk helped me further develop my ideas about mythic patriotism.
I scheduled my January 7th Soapbox talk for Chicago’s Global Citizenship Experience Lab School (an innovative and impressive high school) in late 2020, when the Head of School Cabell King (inspired by my USIH column and specifically the idea of “the patriotism we need”) reached out to invite me to give a talk to the school’s students and faculty. Of course I already knew at that time that any talk about the contested history of American patriotism would have to engage with the unfolding contemporary debates around that and so many related issues, and indeed had been thinking about those contemporary connections since I wrote the book’s Conclusion—but I’d be lying if I said I had any idea that I’d be giving my talk the day after an insurrection of Americans claiming to be patriots attacked the US Capitol building.
Obviously my talk was far from the first thing on my mind as I watched the events of January 6th unfold (or read about them on social media, at least—I was with my younger son getting his allergy shots that afternoon). But that evening I began to think through the fact that I would need to engage with those events in my talk, spurred on by a particular, hugely telling quote I encountered the next morning in an excellent Nation magazine story on the insurrection. The reporter, Andrew McCormick, was following around a number of the day’s rioters/domestic terrorists, and as police began to fire tear gas at the rioters, he writes, “‘This is not America,’ a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. ‘They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.’” I was already aware that many of the January 6th rioters thought of themselves as patriots, but I was nonetheless struck by such an overt use of the term and knew I had found a quote for my opening slide.
Gradually I realized I had more than that, however—that this quote, singular as it no doubt is, at the same time reflects a core element of the form I patriotism I call mythic patriotism. I define that patriotism as in part the creation of a mythic vision of American history and identity, writing in my book’s intro that it features “narratives that allow for a concurrent embrace of the historical United States but that do so by excluding certain aspects of, and too often communities from, our history.” But as I’ve continued to think about this form of patriotism, I’ve realized that it likewise and relatedly excludes those contemporary Americans who do not participate in the celebrations of this mythic America. And that’s what we see particularly clearly in the January 6th quote—that the speaker and her fellow rioters are patriots in direct contrast to a group like “BLM” (Black Lives Matter protesters), who are thus overtly defined as unpatriotic, even as outside of America, due I would argue to their challenge to the mythic patriotic narrative (as well as their race/culture, because to be clear mythic patriotism is almost always overtly white supremacist as well). All ideas I’ve continued to develop, helped by this first book talk and its coincidental but crucial timing.
Next book talk reflection tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this reflection? Ideas for other settings or audiences with whom I could share the book?