Monday, July 07, 2008

Waiving the Flag

Waiving the flag

In the United States, the definition of patriotism has been complicated since the days of the Revolution

* Ian Williams
o Ian Williams
o Friday July 4, 2008

Now that Barack Obama has stuck a flag pin in his lapel and is simply waiting for the swiftboaters' insistence to stick a feather in his cap and call it macaroni, July 4 seems an exceptionally apt time to consider patriotism.

As Obama said in his flag-bedecked but nonetheless thoughtful speech, the "question of who is - or is not - a patriot all too often poisons our political debates". Newly invented national communities need to create common myths around which to solidify, and the Boston Tea Party is a great one, if you overlook that it was a bunch of smugglers throwing duty-free tea overboard in case their fellow citizens actually bought it in preferences to their warehouses of smuggled brew. Looking under symbols does lend perspective, but most people understandably don't want to see what's crawling there.

What passes for patriotic display in Britain is November 5, when we light bonfires and let off fireworks to celebrate the gruesome hanging, drawing and quartering of Guy Fawkes, who, it is often said, was the last man to enter parliament with honourable intentions.

However, trying to blow up the members of the parliament and the King on behalf of Rome did not make him popular. Since he was a terrorist, exercising a "Papist plot" to overthrow the protestant regime in London, his messy demise was for a long time celebrated in Boston as Pope's Day, in an orgy of violent anti-Catholicism.

In colonial New England, one of the grudges that led to July 4 was that King George had viciously allowed the Catholic Church to remain in power in Quebec when it was taken from the French, which is why the Quebecois were distinctly cool toward the Pope's Day celebrants when the latter ventured north into Canada with evangelical zeal.

Prominent among the "patriot" officers trying to rouse the Canadians was one Benedict Arnold, who was also a veteran of the campaigns that had led to the French threat being removed from the American colonies. The rebels could resist British power now confident that the French would no longer attack them, which led crusty old Samuel Johnson, who anticipated Mark Twain by averring that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel", to suggest his own quick cure for the American Revolution: "Let us restore to the French what we have taken from them. We shall see our colonists at our feet, when they have an enemy so near them."

Apart from personal peeve at being overlooked for promotion, it has been suggested that the colonists' invitation to his Most Catholic Majesty of France to join them in the war was what tipped Arnold over to the British side. He was bitterly anti-French and cursed with a memory of how big a threat they had been.

Indeed, the warm reception Arnold had from the British, despite his part in several crucial revolutionary victories over the Loyalists and British, suggests that even at this late stage there could have been a negotiated and satisfactory settlement, with the colonies accepting what would later be called Dominion status on the lines of Canada and Australia. The British overlooked his earlier "treachery". The Patriots could not bring themselves to do so with the one-third of their fellow colonials who were Loyalists throughout. Indeed, one of the last Pope's Days to be celebrated burned an effigy of Arnold, along with one of the Pope.

However one of the issues that tended to irreconcilability was the anger of southern slaveholders whose chattels had deserted and obtained their freedom by joining the tyrannical King's cause. "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Samuel Johnson asked, and has never been adequately answered. Indeed, it has been argued that, while the New England colonies were revolting for the right not to pay taxes (with or without representation), what got the south upset was Lord Mansfield's judgment in 1773 that slavery was illegal in Britain itself.

The Virginians were deeply concerned when, in order to get the colonists to help pay off the debt incurred in war to free the colonies from the French, London asserted that English law applied everywhere in the empire. The Declaratory Act of 1767 declared that British law was supreme throughout the colonies. The Mansfield judgment was the last thing on Parliament's mind. It was on the top of the minds of all those colonial gentlemen who shouted "Liberty or death" and were quite prepared to kill any slave who tried to take it.

Truly, we should remember as the flags wave and rockets glare, that if the fundamentalist original intention crowd in the US supreme court had their way, they would declare the election, indeed the candidacy, of Barack Obama unconstitutional. It certainly was not the original intent of the Founding Fathers to have a black president – nor indeed a woman. Indeed, their supporters out there, not so deep in their hearts, really feel that it is so even if they do not come outright to say so. Some would even call it patriotism.

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