HOW DO YOU KEEP your sense of patriotism intact when you hate what your country is becoming? I've had trouble with this all my adult life, through Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran-Contra, and Bushes I and II. Never has it been so tested as in the past two years, with the double blow of the stolen election in 2000 and the aftermath of the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.
Take this with a grain of salt then: I am not the best measure of the American heart or mind. But I hear a great and increasing dissonance in the American story. My reservoir of patriotism isn't dry but is sorely depleted by a drought of faith. To me, our national narrative is beginning to sound like fingernails on a blackboard.
America is the world's greatest democracy, we've been told, and the pre- eminent advocate of democratic principles everywhere. The credibility of the latter assertion has been eroded by our adherence to self-interest in international affairs, which frequently results in our nurturing repressive regimes and death squads and arranging the occasional bloody coup. We've rationalized our bad behavior abroad by imagining that it was dictated by the Darwinian realities of the global jungle, crawling as it is with "evil" beasts. More important, no matter what we did in funny foreign countries, it didn't really matter as we didn't molest Lady Liberty at home.
But the 2000 presidential election violated that stipulation. After Florida and its fallout, many of us could no longer believe that America was either a democratic or a constitutional country. We watched as an election was stolen in broad daylight; we saw the collapse of our vaunted electoral system (Jimmy Carter said even third-world countries could throw a better election); we watched the loyal opposition collapse before the power of the status quo: Continuity became more important than the people's will. We accepted a Supreme Court decision that subverted our democratic process in the name of saving it. Lady Liberty, apparently, was married to an abuser. From that day on, nothing has been right with America. That single injustice that squats in the Oval Office resonates through everything we do.
THE EVENTS OF 9/11 were a hideous attack on our people. The attacks were not caused by the stolen election, but they exacerbated an open wound. And further assaults on our sense of reality have followed. The dissonance grows louder. The country of optimism is suffering from a widespread malaise: We are told the recession is over, yet our economy slumps. Our economic security is jeopardized by the people entrusted to ensure it: Our business leaders rob our pension funds, while Bush and Congress loot the Treasury with tax cuts and bloated spending. We are told to live normal lives—but under the shadow of a perpetual war where all neighbors and newcomers are suspect. We are told the world has changed forever, but if that is so, why are all of the solutions and new initiatives drawn from old agendas? We hunt Osama bin Laden but catch only Martha Stewart. Our patriotism is demanded while we are robbed of our rights. The USA Patriot Act enshrines Big Brother, which we celebrate by singing "God Bless America."
Further evidence that the story line is all wrong: Reality doesn't track with our traditional sympathies. Once we fielded minutemen—blacksmiths and farmers who were revolutionary guerrilla fighters resisting the oppression of an empire and a king. And later, a new generation of humble citizen soldiers fought against imperial Japan and a goose-stepping Third Reich out to conquer the world. The forces of darkness were defeated by dogfaces like Willie and Joe: The common man kicked ass. These are still our heroes. Underdogs entertain us in the continuing Star Wars saga and in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In these stories (and others; Dune comes to mind) the good folk live in deserts and caves and combat high-tech, corrupt imperial forces with spunk and spiritual strength. What's wrong with this picture? I'm not saying that bin Laden is the moral equivalent of Frodo Baggins, but in the wake of 9/11 it is disconcerting to root for heroes that have more in common with our enemies than our friends. Indeed, Bush acts more like Lord Suaron every day, while Dick Cheney mans a Death Star.
This may not be by accident. A recent article in The Independent of London explored the similarities between Al Qaeda and the heroes of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (Al Qaeda translates as "foundation" in Arabic). They may have modeled themselves in part after the heroes of a science fiction epic, wherein a small band anticipates correctly the decline and fall of a decadent galactic empire that tries to destroy them as they plant the seeds of a new civilization. Perhaps bin Laden is consciously using our own modern myths against us. If so, it would be the cleverest of psyops campaigns, but one no less diabolical than the one we are already waging on ourselves.