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The Patriotism Reflex

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Some years ago a philosophy professor gave our class a fascinating assignment. He instructed each of us to decide who our favorite celebrity was. By "celebrity" he meant anyone famous -- a writer, politician, athlete, artist, entertainer, nuclear physicist, anybody. And they didn't have to be alive. They could be historical figures. They could be George Washington, Al Jolson, or Emma Goldman.

Then he asked us to take a moment and seriously consider what our favorite celebrities would have to do -- what egregious crime they'd have to commit, what disgusting character flaw they'd have to expose, what "secret identity" they'd have to reveal -- in order for us not to "like" them anymore. According to the professor, the object of this exercise was to "explore the boundaries of tolerance."

I chose Bob Dylan. I picked Dylan not only because I liked his music and had more or less fallen under his spell, but because I knew a fair amount about his personal history.

The classroom discussion that followed was very revealing. Unless that whole damn philosophy class was lying, it soon became apparent that there was virtually nothing any of our "cultural heroes" could do wrong to significantly change our opinion of them. We liked who we liked... and we were pretty much going to keep liking them, no matter what. We were either prepared to refuse to believe the charges leveled against them, or to find ways of rationalizing them.

Part of the classroom exercise was to bring up all the hypothetical crimes and character defects we could think of to talk ourselves out of it. For example, what if our heroes were alcoholics or druggies? What if Albert Einstein was a heroin addict who sold drugs to teenagers and turned kids into dope fiends? No. The class agreed that that wasn't a good enough reason not to admire him. After all, relativity theory is still relativity theory.

What if James Madison was found to have been guilty of spousal abuse? What if it was revealed that he used to beat the living daylights out of Dolly? Nope... he was still a great man. Or take Henry Ford, who was a virulent anti-Semite in real life. Do we dump him? Nope... Ford was an industrial genius, plain and simple. Racism? No. Fascist tendencies? No. Embezzlement? Child molestation? Cruelty to animals? Armed robbery? No, no, no, and no. None of the things we brought up could pry us off our favorites. We were fiercely loyal.

During the discussion, students pointed out that even though the Founding Fathers were slave owners, it doesn't mean we can't revere them for what they contributed to the formation of the country. And let's not forget that the Earl Warren who stripped Japanese-Americans of their property and interned them in concentration camps was the same Earl Warren who led the fight for Brown vs. Board of Education. And Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Etc.

But what about murder? Surely, that would matter. Wrong. Murder didn't necessarily tip the scales either. A student who had named Mozart as his "all-time favorite person" was asked by the professor if his appreciation of the great composer would be diminished if he learned that Mozart had, in fact, been a serial killer -- that he had roamed the streets of Vienna committing Jack-the-Ripper-style grisly murders of young women. The student answered that it would not. "I'd like to think that I'd be able to separate the man from his art," he said proudly.

As for myself, would my opinion of Bob Dylan have changed if I'd found out that he'd killed a man, or that he was a wife-beater, or that he used the term "nigger" in private conversations? Would I scratch him off my list of cultural heroes... or would I take a deep breath and find a way to "separate the man from his art"?

Which brings us to patriotism. Whether it was the extermination of native Americans, support of rightwing tyrants who uttered those three magic words ("I hate Communism"), secret medical experiments on U.S. citizens, or collateral damage to civilian populations during wars, we seem to have little capacity for sustained self-recrimination. Call it patriotism, call it blind optimism, call it "fogging the lens." American exceptionalism is alive and well.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net