All Consuming Patriotism

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I think of myself as a good American. I follow current events, come to a complete stop at stop signs, show up for jury duty, vote. When the government tells me to shop, as it’s been doing recently, I shop. Over the last few months, patriotically, I’ve bought all kinds of stuff I have no use for. Lack of money has been no obstacle; years ago I could never get a credit card, due to low income and lack of a regular job, and then one day for no reason credit cards began tumbling on me out of the mail. I now owe more to credit card companies than the average family of four earns in a year. So when buying something I don’t want or need, I simply take out my credit card. That part’s been easy; for me, it’s the shopping itself that’s hard. I happen to be a bad shopper — nervous, uninformed, prone to grab the first product I see on the shelf and pay any amount for it and run out the door. Frequently, trips I make to the supermarket end with my wife shouting in disbelief as she goes through the grocery bags and immediately transfers one wrongly purchased item after another directly into the garbage can.

It’s been hard, as I say, but I’ve done my duty — I’ve shopped and then shopped some more. Certain sacrifices are called for. Out of concern for the economy after the terror attacks, the president said that he wanted us to go about our business, and not stop shopping. On a TV commercial sponsored by the travel industry, he exhorted us to take the family for a vacation. The treasury secretary, financial commentators, leaders of industry — all told us not to be afraid to spend. So I’ve gone out of my comfort zone, even expanded my purchasing patterns. Not long ago I detected a look of respect in the eye of a young salesman with many piercings at the music store as he took in my heavy middle-aged girth and then the rap music CD featuring songs of murder and gangsterism that I had selflessly decided to buy. My life is usually devoid of great excitement or difficulty, knock wood and thank God, and I have nothing to cry about, but I’ve also noticed in the media recently a strong approval for uninhibited public crying. So now, along with the shopping, I’ve been crying a lot, too. Sometimes I cry and shop at the same time.

As I’m pushing my overfull shopping cart down the aisle, sobbing quietly, moving a bit more slowly because of the extra weight I’ve lately put on, a couple of troubling questions cross my mind. First, I start to worry about the real depth of my shopping capabilities. So far I have more or less been able to keep up with what the government expects of me. I’m at a level of shopping that I can stand. But what if, God forbid, events take a bad turn and the national crisis worsens, and more shopping is required? Can I shop with greater intensity than I am shopping now? I suppose I could eat even more than I’ve been eating, and order additional products in the mail, and go on costlier trips, and so on. But I’m not eager, frankly, to enter that “code red” shopping mode. I try to tell myself that I’d be equal to it, that in a real crisis I might be surprised by how much I could buy. But I don’t know.

My other worry is a vague one, more in the area of atmospherics, intangibles. I feel kind of wrong even mentioning it in this time of trial. How can I admit that I am worried about my aura? I worry that my aura is not… well, that it’s not what I had once hoped it would be. I can explain this only by comparison, obliquely. On the top shelf of my bookcase, among the works vital to me, is a book called Trials and Triumphs: The Record of the Fifty-Fifth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, by Captain Hartwell Osborn. I’ve read this book many times and studied it to the smallest detail, because I think the people in it are brave and cool and admirable in every way.

The Fifty-Fifth was a Union Army regiment, formed in the Ohio town of Norwalk, that fought throughout the Civil War. My great-great-grandfather served in the regiment, as did other relatives. The book lists every mile the regiment marched and every casualty it suffered. I like reading about the soldiering, but I can’t really identify with it, having never been in the service myself. I identify more with the soldiers’ wives and mothers and daughters, whose home-front struggles I can better imagine. Trials and Triumphs devotes a chapter to them, and to an organization they set up called the Soldiers’ Aid Society.

The ladies of the Soldiers’ Aid Society worked for the regiment almost constantly from the day it began. They sewed uniforms, made pillows, held ice-cream sociables to raise money, scraped lint for bandages, emptied their wedding chests of their best linen and donated it all. To provide the men with antiscorbutics while on campaign, they pickled everything that would pickle, from onions to potatoes to artichokes. Every other day they were shipping out a new order of homemade supplies. Some of the women spent so much time stooped over while packing goods in barrels that they believed they had permanently affected their postures. When the war ended the ladies of the Soldiers’ Aid said that for the first time in their lives they understood what united womanhood could accomplish. The movements for prohibition and women’s suffrage that grew powerful in the early 1900s got their start among those who’d worked in similar home-front organizations during the war.

I don’t envy my forebears, or wish I’d lived back then. I prefer the greater speed and uncertainty and complicatedness of now. But I can’t help thinking that in terms of aura, the Norwalk ladies have it all over me. I study the pages with their photographs, and admire the plainness of their dresses, the set of their jaws, the expression in their eyes. Next to them my credit card and I seem a sorry spectacle indeed. Their sense of purpose shames me. What the country needed from those ladies it asked for, and they provided, straightforwardly; what it wants from me it somehow can’t come out and ask. I’m asked to shop more, which really means to spend more, which eventually must mean to work more than I was working before. In previous wars, harder work was a civilian sacrifice that the government didn’t hesitate to ask. Nowadays it’s apparently unwilling to ask for any sacrifice that might appear to be too painful, too real

But I want it to be real. I think a lot of us do. I feel like an idiot with my tears and shopping cart. I want to participate, to do something — and shopping isn’t it. Many of the donors who contributed more than half a billion dollars to a Red Cross fund for the families of terror attack victims became angry when they learned that much of the money would end up not where they had intended but in the Red Cross bureaucracy. People want to express themselves with action. In New York City so many have been showing up recently for jury duty that the courts have had to turn hundreds away; officials said a new surplus of civic consciousness was responsible for the upsurge. I’d be glad if I were asked to — I don’t know — drive less or turn the thermostat down or send in seldom-used items of clothing or collect rubber bands or plant a victory garden or join a civilian patrol or use fewer disposable paper products at children’s birthday parties. I’d be willing, if asked, just to sit still for a day and meditate on the situation, much in the way that Lincoln used to call for national days of prayer.

A great, shared desire to do something is lying around mostly untapped. The best we can manage, it seems, is to show our U.S.A. brand loyalty by putting American flags on our houses and cars. Some businesses across the country even display in their windows a poster on which the American flag appears as a shopping bag, with two handles at the top. Above the flag-bag are the words “America: Open for Business.” Money and the economy have gotten so tangled up in our politics that we forget we’re citizens of our government, not its consumers. And the leaders we elect, who got where they are by selling themselves to us with television ads, and who often are only on short loan from the corporate world anyway, think of us as customers who must be kept happy. There’s a scarcity of ideas about how to direct all this patriotic feeling because usually the market, not the country, occupies our minds. I’m sure it’s possible to transform oneself from salesman to leader, just as it is to go from consumer to citizen. But the shift of identity is awkward, without many precedents, not easily done. In between the two — between selling and leading, between consuming and being citizens — is where our leaders and the rest of us are now.

We see the world beyond our immediate surroundings mostly through television, whose view is not much wider than that of a security peephole in a door. We hear over and over that our lives have forever changed, but the details right in front of us don’t look very different, for all that. The forces fighting in Afghanistan are in more danger than we are back home, but perhaps not so much more; everybody knows that when catastrophe comes it could hit anywhere, most likely someplace it isn’t expected. Strong patriotic feelings stir us, fill us, but have few means of expressing themselves. We want to be a country, but where do you go to do that? Surely not the mall. When Mayor Giuliani left office at the end of 2001, he said he was giving up the honorable title of mayor for the more honorable title of citizen. He got that right. Citizen is honorable; shopper is not.


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