Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I hate to quibble with Mark Hyman’s Thanksgiving encomium to the wonders of the United States, but there are just a few small things that should be pointed out.

First, Hyman says that for 400 years “Americans” have given thanks for the harvests provided by the land. While I’m not one those people who get riled up whenever someone uses “American” as a synonym for one who lives in the United States, it’s probably worth noting that in the context of the early colonial history of the United States, “Americans” is a term that should be used with some care.

In particular, it can’t help but call to mind who the “Americans” were before the Pilgrims arrived and what Thanksgiving might signify for their descendents. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from King of the Hill: Dale asks John Redcorn (a Native American), “Do your people even celebrate Thanksgiving?” to which Redcorn responds scornfully, “We did . . . once.”

I love Thanksgiving as much as the next person, but Hyman’s unfortunate wording is enough to make even the less-than-thoroughly PC among us wince.

Secondly, I can’t help but marvel at Hyman’s ability to work in another gratuitous reference to illegal immigration in one of his commentaries. This is truly an obsession that runs deeply and darkly through Hyman’s psyche.

Lastly, Hyman states categorically that “[o]urs is a nation that collectively serves the public good. And for this, we are all thankful.”

Well, I think most people would agree that the United States is founded on important principles and has served as both an example and beacon to those across the world who aspire to freedom and democracy.

But Hyman’s formulation suggests that because of this, what the United States does is, by definition, part of the “public good.”

It’s not in spite of my patriotism, but rather because of it, that I can’t second this statement. There have been plenty of times when our country, either through mistake, misguidance, or narrow-mindedness has not served the public good, and we would be doing a disservice to what is best about our nation if we ignored those times when we haven’t collectively acted in accordance with the ideals of which we are so rightly proud. To believe that the United States simply “serves the public good” is to abandon our duties as citizens to be sure that our nation actually does serve the public good. And part of this duty is to be honest about past mistakes and willing to permit the kind of introspection that will allow us to recognize mistakes when we make them.

Unfortunately, the simplistic patriotism that sometimes holds us in such thrall can, when codified into an unchanging mindset, subvert the very ideals that warrant patriotism in the first place.

In one of his lesser known dialogs, Menexenus, Plato describes Socrates coming home after hearing a speech praising Athens to the skies for all the superiorities of its collective character (many of which are the same superiorities we often associate with the modern United States). Socrates says that as he heard the speech, he felt himself nearly stupefied by the sense of exaltation. He began looking at others around him who weren’t native Athenians, and he felt better than them. He heard the history of Athens praised in such lofty terms that, even though he knew the facts were being edited and distorted by the speaker to make Athens seem that much better, he was caught up in the thrill of belonging to this idealized city. His euphoria lasts for days.

Only then, when he has “come down,” does Socrates understand the fact that the speaker has done him no favors by transporting him to such a state. In the name of patriotism, the speaker has separated Socrates from those who aren’t truly Athenian, although they live with him. He has been separated from the truth of his own community, because its history has been whitewashed of those aspects of it that were too troubling to fit into the pristine vision the speaker wanted to evoke. Ultimately, Socrates is divided from his own sense of himself and his identity because he has given himself over to a seductive but ultimately false vision of what his community is. As a result, he has been put into such a stupor that he is incapable of doing what he does best: goading and educating his fellow citizens into living better lives, into making the real Athens even better.

So next time you hear people insisting that if you don’t subscribe to their particular brand of bumper-sticker patriotism that you are “un-American,” you might consider asking them who’s really got the “public interest” at heart by dropping a little Platonic knowledge on them.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


At 12:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm afraid I'm "out of my element" (to quote Walter Sobchak) with regard to Greek history, but then, Mark Hyman is certainly out of his element when he attempts to embrace the concept of the public good.

Now here's a guy who's part of a group of bullies with broadcast towers who go around smearing others, trashing those who disagree with him, and act in simply childish and selfish ways. All while trying to keep a straight face and sound so righteous. Ick!

Mark, are you pulling our leg again?

And that's the pointyhead


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