Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My problem with patriotic display; or, What I saw at the Kennedy Center last night

For whatever reason, I've never been very comfortable with overt manifestations of patriotism. I did not display the flag after 9/11 (or before it). I don't especially like the post-9/11 practice of singing 'God Bless America' at the 7th-inning stretch of baseball games; isn't the national anthem before the game enough? Nor can I look too kindly on the college students who congregated in front of the White House chanting 'USA' after the killing of bin Laden, though I recognize that they probably represented a fairly small fraction of their peers and I agree with DPT on the need for some humility about one's own reactions in this respect.

This issue presented itself in another guise for me last night, when I attended the 40th annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and delivered this year by Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University and Lincoln Professor of History. Her lecture, "Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian," was thoughtful and quite interesting, if not exactly what I'd expected. What I want to focus on just now, however, is what preceded it. The U.S. Marine Band, "The President's Own," played for about 25 minutes, with Civil War images flashing on a screen above it, as people filed into the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which was the venue. Then a Joint Color Guard presented the colors, which involves uniformed representatives of each of the military services presenting their flags in a stylized ritual, to the accompaniment of flourishes from the Marine Band, and with two rifle-wielding soldiers (were they Marines? I'm not sure) on either side of the flag-bearers. Then right after the Presentation of Colors (or was it right before? I can't remember) there was the national anthem. The Marine Band of course is a very tight ensemble (if you've never heard the Marine Band, you don't know how tight "tight" can be), and their renditions (including the Marine Corps hymn "From the Halls of Montezuma") were quite stirring. After all this, the audience was no doubt feeling something (patriotic or perhaps just 'stirred') by the time Congressman John Lewis walked to the podium to read a poem by Walt Whitman, "Dirge for Two Veterans," which was the last program item before the lecture itself.

But -- of course there was a "but" coming, you knew that -- was the military pomp and circumstance appropriate? Although war was the central theme of Faust's lecture, this was not a lecture about military history. Rather, she talked, among other things, about the connections between war and literature and war and memory, about the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that war has exercised over humans for millennia -- all in line with the fact that this was the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, not the Jefferson Lecture in Military Science.

Now, I don't know whether the Marine Band and the Presentation of the Colors are standard fare at the Jefferson Lectures, since, although I was aware of the Lecture's distinguished history, this was the first one I'd attended. (It would be easy enough to find out, no doubt, but bloggers don't do research. P.s. I'm joking.) But standard fare or not, I found it -- the Presentation of the Colors and so on -- a little peculiar in this context. (Be it noted in passing that in introducing Faust, Jim Leach, chairman of the NEH, mentioned the return of ROTC to Harvard.)

Was this feeling of oddness just me, was it just my own -- perhaps irrational -- problem with patriotic display? Perhaps. And yet, I thought I overheard a snatch of conversation a couple of aisles in front of me in which someone seemed to have asked his or her companion what all this was about, and the reply came back, "It's Washington." No, this answer won't do. It doesn't explain it. The Jefferson Lecture I would say hovers somewhere in between 'official Washington' and 'cultural Washington' -- it's a lecture delivered annually by a prominent scholar or person of letters intended for the general public -- and in neither official nor cultural Washington, at least to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, is it mandatory to have the sort of preliminaries that were laid on here. OK, I've babbled on long enough and this post is not going to come to any neat conclusion. Perhaps someone who actually knows something about the Jefferson Lectures will leave a comment explaining that I'm an ignorant fool. But I couldn't resist taking advantage of the serendipitous confluence of the debate over the reaction to OBL's demise and my attendance at this event to indulge in the grand blogospheric tradition of dubious navel-gazing.


hank_F_M said...


I am inclined to agree that the recent news is not an occasion for gloating.

That was an interesting description of the Joint Service Color Guard. But then I was did ROTC color guards once upon a time. To see yourself as others see you and all that.

I would suspect that the entertainment was set up long before current events they are heavly scheduled.

LFC said...

Re your last paragraph: I would guess, though I don't know for sure, that everything about the evening, including the pre-lecture entertainment, was co-ordinated and planned carefully in advance. Anyway I enjoyed hearing the Marine Band live (my stated reservations in the post notwithstanding).

I notice at your blog you are predicting a slow collapse of AQ in wake of OBL's death. Maybe, but if I were betting I wouldn't be too quick to bet on it. Its threat has long been somewhat exaggerated in any case.

El Jefe Maximo said...

LFC, you're just post-nationalist, at home in a post-national world. That's quite a normal attitude for an educated person such as yourself.

Business, academic and political establishments here and in western Europe tried mightily to create a post-national world ethos post-1945; and, in Europe they succeeded to a much greater degree than in America, for obvious reasons.

With the partial exception of the timing, the display would not have bothered me much, but then I've never had much sympathy with the post-national idea.

LFC said...

El Jefe,
I've not been in the habit of considering myself 'post-nationalist' but now that you've gotten me thinking about this label and issue, I'll perhaps address it at some point at more length in a post. But I need to think about it a bit more first.