Missionary Position

Missionary Position

Jonathon Delacour’s post about patriotism and Bean’s pointer to The End of the World (a charming little flash animation) coalesced for me in a strange way. I suppose, though I’ve been living in several different states, that I’d still label myself as a Californian. Though technically a part of the United States, California often seems like a separate country lacking the missionary zeal that fills the heartland. As the sixth largest economy in the world, perhaps that sense of being separate is warranted. However, it comes at a price.

Almost nothing in California is native. Its past is shallow; the town I grew up in was founded, like most of the state— after the Civil War. There are no memories of the divisiveness that founded the country, no sense that unity was something that people spilled blood to gain—just dreams and hopes wrapped around prosperity. The land was stolen and exploited, as were the people who flocked there in search of a better life. There is no sense of a “mission” beyond that of self-improvement. Somehow, electing an immigrant body-builder turned star to the position of governor seems poetic.

Few flags are waved proudly in California. One is more likely to see the Mexican flag, or a flag from another country (at least when I was last there, nearly a decade ago) than one is to see the state flag of the golden bear. While I suspect that the stars and stripes flag of the US is probably more prominent since 9/11, it wasn’t (when I was there) much of a flag-waving state. Corporate logos probably have a higher “recognition factor” than flags, at least in California.

The situation in Arkansas is different. The state was deeply divided during the Civil War. The state flag displays its connection with the south by mirroring the stars and bars flag of the confederacy. It can be seen in nearly every business, on many homes, and it is virtually impossible to pass through the state without seeing its colors, which remind me of the cape used to inflame bulls before a fight. I was unfamiliar with this sort of fierce regionalism, which contrasts deeply with the relatively mild narcissism and ahistoricism prevalent in California. Arkansas is often called “the buckle of the Bible belt” with good reason. I wouldn’t really call it “patriotism”— it is more akin to missionary zeal, at least in its darker forms.

However, such fierce dedication to nationalism or regionalism is not exclusively negative. With it comes an admirable dedication to tradition—to the remembrance of cultural values that have served, and continue to bind a country born filled with irreconcilable differences. In California, I never understood what being “American” was really all about. In the South and Midwest, it just sort of slaps you in the face. It isn’t really as much about the sort of “militarism” that Jonathon talks about (which seems a logical conclusion based on a reading of the media), but rather about ties of a different sort. Driving across the Midwest this summer, I think the most popular names for towns give a better clue.

Every state is filled with names stolen from other places—there is a Paris, Texas as well as Paris, Stuttgart, and London, Arkansas. People bring bits of their previous homes along with them, at least in name. But as near as I can figure, the most popular recurrent names for towns in America seem to be Independence and Hope. There are at least ten Independences, and ten Hopes (even more if you count variants like “Hopeville”). In the nineteenth century, the Midwest was filled with utopian communities that sprung up to declare their separatism from nationalistic values. The Midwest once rallied around those values—rather than the militarism that seems to fill our current media. It has been a tremendous coup by the conservatives in this country to make missionary hope equivalent to flag-waving nationalism in the twentieth century.

In the twentieth century, there seems to be no place left to plant a new flag and declare hope for independence. America, however, remains rigidly locked in its missionary position—forgetting that ideas provide a more lasting force than guns. The problem with old flags is that (appropriating Pound’s remarks about metaphor), they have lost their currency. The delicate etched faces that formed them have worn away leaving burnished gun barrels. Hope and independence are not found by staring down the barrel of a gun.

I think a lot about the power of tradition these days—is it possible to keep what is good about it without bathing in the blood it costs? Is it possible to maintain the self-reflexive identity it forms without pointlessly trading in dead metaphors? National identities are subject to constant reinvention; it seems imperative to keep those identities living and formative rather than dead and rote. I’m not convinced that nationalism or regionalism are entirely bad things—only the rote recital of ideas that are long past their sell-by date.