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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei, 5762

Julia Gorin

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Patriotism for Dummies -- IT'S all very nice. The American flags fluttering about The City. Candles planted on sidewalks, in tree pods and under shrubs, flickering through the night. A small flag fluttering into the flame, then out of the flame, back into the flame-so that I had to blow out the candle to keep a fire from breaking out on the Upper East Side and diverting rescue crews from downtown. With all the lit candles lining the blocks these past weeks, I fully expect to wake up every day with the neighborhood up in smoke from my neighbors' good intentions.

Meanwhile, street vendors with patriotic paraphernalia and clothes are selling out, just as all the stores had done the week before. Many people are getting patriotic tattoos and manicures-and cityscapes featuring the Twin Towers are going fast. Friends are bombarding me with gushy emails telling me to wear red, white and blue, to step out onto my porch at 7pm with a candle for a nationwide vigil or, if I'm in a car, to honk my horn. And any minute now I'm expecting Elton John to re-dedicate his "Candle in the Wind" for a fourth time to the Twin Towers: "It seems to me you lived your lives like two candles in the windů" Finally, in what may be the most stunning vision, the piece de resistance of the transforming new patriotic era: Puerto Rican New Yorkers-never before known to accompany their ubiquitous flag with an American one-donning the American one, unaccompanied. (One has to wonder how they're feeling now about bombing practice on Vieques Island.)

For my conservative and unapologetically pro-American views, I have often been called "reactionary." By folks who two weeks ago stormed the supermarkets, holed themselves up in their apartments or left the city, suddenly started calling George Bush "president" instead of "idiot" and, finally, hoped aloud that "fascist" mayor Rudy Giuliani's term would be extended. He's good, he's bad, he's good, he's-. Arafat's good-bad-good-no, he's bad again-no, he's-. Raise the flag, lower the flag, raise the flag, tear the flag, sew the flag, burn the flag. What? The hijackers were connected to an Albanian terrorist cell? The same Albanian militants we saved because someone yelled genocide and so our doves became hawks?

No, I'm not the reactionary. My positions are the same today as they were two weeks ago, and so my reactions are pretty even. Take the right position, and there will be fewer surprises. And fewer about-faces.

Before that fateful Tuesday, I didn't see anyone wearing anything with pro-American logos. I didn't hear any talk on the street or dinner conversations complaining about the US Tennis Association's decision to not play the national anthem at the US Open for fear of "offending" participants and visitors from other countries. I did, however, often get funny looks when reading books with titles like "My Love Affair with America" or "Not Without Honor." And I did often get cited variations of the eighteenth century adage by literary critic Samuel Johnson calling patriotism "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

And now all this outpouring of love for the country. All these tributes and overtures. Mostly by people who had to actually go out and buy a flag so they could raise it for the first time in their lives. It's sort of like the person who cries the loudest at a funeral-usually the person who had the most problematic relationship with the deceased and so, after the fact, has the most to feel guilty about. Here it took ten thousand or so deceased for the public to set aside its petty claims on, and grievances against, the country and take a moment to think how good it has been to us. And now it's not enough for my fellow New Yorkers and other cavalier Americans just to grieve quietly to themselves and understand that everyone knows they feel the country's pain. No. They have to burn the whole building down so everyone knows who cares the most.

If these people's love of country were deep and consistent through time, they wouldn't feel the need to be so demonstrative today. The contrast between before and after wouldn't be so glaring. Nor would they have been part of the anti-Americanism that's been festering around the globe, building to a crescendo in recent months, and ultimately responsible for the hit we took last week. What with the daily domestic assault on our core national values and on our capitalist system, with the insistence on the moral equivalence of non-democratic societies, and the assumption that the rest of the world's intentions are pure and good while our good intentions are duplicitous and imperialistic, who needs enemies abroad?

People who have scoffed at, condescended to, or been amused by the words "love of country" and "national security" are now signing their letters and emails "G-d Bless America." (G-d being the other hastily rediscovered great ethic.) These are the new patriots? More like patriots du jour, I'm afraid.

I'm not displaying a flag on my balcony, because I already have one emblazoned on my soul. Unlike cloth or paper, it's not disposable, and so my patriotism is not ephemeral. But when the flags start coming down after a few weeks or months or maybe even a year, I'll have to wonder whether these freshly minted patriots will hold on to them so they can burn them the next time they object to some policy. Because if all this symbolism indeed turns out to be emblematic of nothing more than a love as external as the tokens and a fad as fleeting as the candles, the new keepsakes could become souvenirs of a nation that once was.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2001, Julia Gorin