March 26, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

     Patriotism evokes ambivalence in us liberals. We don’t like the bombast, and yet recognize that it is a feeling worthy of respect. What is the basis of that feeling? What actual experience lies behind it? If we dig deep inside ourselves, we’ll find that it is something quite small, yet lasting in its hold on our affections.

     At least, it is so with me. My patriotic feeling for China was revived during a brief visit in 2005, after an absence of 64 years. What revived it? Certainly not the surprising displays of power and wealth. Rather it was in an encounter that might easily be dismissed as insignificant. I strolled alone in a Beijing park. Twilight had set and the park was in semi-darkness and empty except for a man sitting on a bench. I walked past him and was just about to make a turn to climb a flight of steps, when he said, "Old sir! Do be careful."

     What is the basis of my patriotic feeling for the United States? Again, it is something quite small. It goes back to my student days when I frequently traveled across the country on Greyhound bus. In these long-distance rides, I felt a strange oneness with my fellow passengers. I might, for example, confide stories of my life to the stranger sitting next to me in a way I would never do with my closest friends. There was also the physical closeness. In the small hours of the night, in the darkened bus interior and to the lullaby of the tires sighing over the sun-softened highway, we slumped over one another in one heaving, democratic heap. Walt Whitman would be proud if he could see us. And this was not all. At the rest stop just before the sun rose, I would waken to black coffee and pancake with maple syrup. Returning to the idling bus, I breathed in the cool morning air, now tinted with the fragrance of gas fumes, and felt a momentary but profound sense of well-being. "Yap," I said to myself, "America can be my future home."

     Allan Bennett is an English playwright. His patriotism is touched by nostalgia. Today’s multicultural England makes him homesick for "a wee lost England of tea cozies and unspoiled country lanes and fair-haired schoolboys with skinned knees and heads full of Shakespeare."

     Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s patriotism drew on the perfection of the moment.

"It was a day before the war, on the banks of the Saône, near Tournus. We had chosen to lunch at a restaurant whose wooden terrace overlooked the river... Leaning on a plain table scarred by customers’s knives, we had ordered two Pernods... And since two bargemen were unloading their barge nearby, we invited them along. We had invited them quite naturally, as friends, perhaps because we felt an inner joy. It was obvious they would respond to our invitation, and we enjoyed a drink together."

"The sun was warm. Its warm honey spread over the poplar tree on the opposite bank and over the plain to the horizon. We were more and more joyful, still without really knowing why. The sun shone reassuringly, the river flowed reassuringly, the meal tasted reassuring; the bargemen who responded to our invitation and the waitress who served us smilingly, as if presiding over an eternal feast, were equally reassuring. We were completely at peace, sheltered from disorder by a perennial civilization. We tasted a kind of bliss where, all wishes were fulfilled, we had nothing to confide to each other. We felt pure, righteous, luminous, and indulgent. We could not have expressed what profound truth was revealed to us, but we felt absolutely certain–an almost overweening certainty" (War-time Writing: 1939-1944).

Best wishes,



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