Art in Paradise: The Donzerly Light

Recently, our day of independence from Britain arrived. It’s a day which brings a bit of a conundrum for fans of thinkers like the late historian and World War II bombardier Howard Zinn, who had this to say about nationalism in The Progressive magazine:

“On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.

“Is not nationalism—that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder—one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

“These ways of thinking—cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on—have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

“…Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.”

Plenty of people find such words offensive, challenging as they are to our often reflexive sense of America as moral arbiter. Of course, they need not be. Being American involves far more than investment in feelings of superiority or exercises of military power. Howard Zinn wasn’t anti-patriotic so much as he was anti-ignorance. His words often bear an aura of especially enlightened truth as a result.

It’s also quite true that, considering things like rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and Mark Twain, being American is a cultural identity that’s well worth celebrating, even if you feel uncomfortable with all that flag-waving and nationalist cheerleading.

Forget donning your best flag pants: glorying in the excesses that make this country culturally unique ought to be considered an acceptable and irony-free way of celebrating our Day of Independence. It is indeed the mish-mash of culture and camp that makes us great in a way that invading distant sandy nations never can.

What I mean is: even fundamentalist Muslims know who Elvis is. On that front, we long ago took over the world. And a visit to Graceland reveals, through rooms with carpeted ceilings and strange white table-top monkeys, that even the biggest American stories of climbing from obscurity to greatness are complicated by the strain of Wild West squalor that inhabits most every American soul. Surely it is that kind of exuberant, new-money crassness that makes us unique and ought to make us humble in our pride.

If we are exceptional as a nation, certainly it is in our unmatched ability to create monuments to our particular kind of excess. (The UAE offers some stiff competition, but theirs is a whole different flavor of excess.)

As exhibit A, I submit Shoji Tabuchi. Where else but in America could a Japanese fiddler with a Moe haircut and a flag suit fly around on a wire playing country music in a theater he owns? Isn’t that worth celebrating?

He—as well as Branson, Mo. itself, where his theater can be found—embodies the uniquely American mashing together of disparate cultures, too much capital, and disregard for the conventions of genre or even conventional taste. Glorying in such things is very different from poking fun at them, and the inability to see the unique tasteful/distasteful genius of Elvis, of Conway Twitty (and Twitty City!), and all-American phenomena like the awful/wonderful Shoji Tabuchi, well, that actually may mean your American citizenship should be called into question.

Those thoughts led me to what seems an appropriate celebration of the Fourth. You can have your nationalism. Me, I like to go with something else: floating around in the swimming pool in one of those double-can hats, listening to the Ramones and Johnny Cash.

I’m tired of “patriotism” being co-opted by people who equate tradition and narrow-mindedness with love of country. An art-loving liberal might not embrace the trappings of American empire or be comfortable endorsing the killing of foreign innocents and detention without charge. But it’s my country, too. And if the American-ness of Shoji Tabuchi isn’t worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.

Author: James Heflin

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