When patriotism becomes nationalism

When we came back to America, it was more like a foreign country to me than the place I’d left. I remembered little of America beyond glimpses and glimmers, an undiscovered land. It was a locale of snapshots and vague dreams, not a real place. It was a lightbulb flickering on a back porch, trees by the side of the road, voices around a battered table, a disconnect so far from my understanding that I barely even spoke the language those memories were encoded in anymore, those voices around the table a meaningless buzz and hum in my thoughts as I laboriously and haltingly translated what they said.

When we flew in over New York City, I could feel my father shifting beside me, turning into someone else, remembering his days working in Manhattan, wandering the streets of Brooklyn, playing a piano on the street, but those were all stories he’d tell me later.

One of his friends from the old days picked us up at the airport and the next day he took us to work with him.

We stood in the shadow of two impossibly tall buildings, necks craned up, while he told us about his new job, and I shifted uneasily in the brassy light and the crowds. We must have stayed in New York for a few days, maybe more, before going out to California, but all I remember is fractured images, like that moment, between the buildings, looking out over the dingy, chaotic city, my father’s friend snapping a photograph of us. It must still be around somewhere, the two of us small and lost in those buffeting crowds.

In years after that, every time I went to New York I took a pilgrimage to the buildings, those impossibly tall skyscrapers that seemed to represent something both earnest and foreboding about America, this place I was supposed to call home. I learned the language and America’s ways and the buildings seemed smaller every time I saw them, glimpsed them from the windows of my plane, and then one day I came back and they weren’t there anymore.

It seems silly, I know, to feel such a sentimental attachment to buildings. I didn’t have the deep connection that New Yorkers did, and no one I knew (well, anyway) died that day, though many people I knew would die because of that day. But to me, they represented a crossing point for me, the moment we returned to America and declared it home, for better or for worse. I don’t remember many things from that first year but I remember the buildings, my father’s friend taking us up an impossible number of floors to his office, riding in the elevator.

I’ve always liked elevators.

Thinking about those buildings always reminds me of a quote from Louis de Bernières:

There are two types of patriotism, although sometimes the two are mingled in the same breast. The first kind one might call nationalism; nationalists believe that all other countries are inferior in every respect and that one would do them a favour by dominating them. Other countries are always in the wrong, they are less free, less civilized, are less glorious in battle, are perfidious, prone to falling for insane and alien ideologies which no reasonable person could believe, are irreligious and abnormal. Such patriots are the most common variety, and their patriotism is the most contemptible thing on earth.

The second type of patriot is best described by returning to the example of General Fuerte. General Fuerte did not believe in ‘my country, right or wrong’; on the contrary, he loved his land despite the faults that he could so clearly see and that he labored to correct. It was his frequently stated opinion that anyone who supported his country when it was so obviously in the wrong, or who failed to see its faults, was the worst kind of traitor. Whereas the first kind of patriot really glories in his own irrationality and not in his country, General Carlo Maria Fuerte loved his country as a son loves his mother or a brother his sister.

The collective response in the early hours of that day seemed like it might become the second kind of patriotism, a nation uniting in confused fury to build something better, but it quickly coalesced into the first, driven by political rhetoric and anger and rage and bubbling xenophobia. It turned into the impetus to criss-cross the globe in the hopes of exacting vengeance, a destruction of so many of the things that represented America to me, then and now. And it was followed by a prolonged, deathly squeal — violence begat violence begat violence, America fed its violence like a greedy toddler screaming for cake, America ate itself sick on violence and vomited it up and came back for more.

I think of this always at this time of year, but this year it seems especially acute, with a rabid nationalist seeking the presidency by any means possible, followed by people just as fervent as he is. The imagery he evokes terrifies me, and yet it’s successful for the same reasons violent rhetoric was after the day, the day when the towers went away, because he speaks to something that people want to hear, to a people confused and frustrated and angry, to a country that wants something it cannot actually articulate. He wants to burn us down and damn the consequences, and his greedy followers want to help him do it.

Many things contributed to the resurgence of nationalism in this country, but I cannot help thinking that perhaps if those towers hadn’t gone away, maybe things would be different.

Image: Twin Towers from Balcony, Gary Boldberg, Flickr