It's becoming all too clear what the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign slogan means, and where it's leading us. Recent rallies of the faithful have taken on a detestable, rabble-rousing tone, and the principals themselves have done little or nothing to stem the tide. Those who have lived long enough to survive--dare I mention it?--the outrage of several European nationalist movements of the twentieth century (not to mention the perverted nationalism that poisoned American politics during the McCarthy era) will surely share my discomfort at the shameless xenophobia fostered by the present-day Republican effort to retain the White House.
In questioning the American bona fides of Barack Obama, as she has done repeatedly, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin speaks either in appalling ignorance or reprehensible bad faith. Could she be unaware of the not too distant history of a time in which the term "un-American" was used by the unscrupulous to brand their fellow-countrymen as treasonous? Could she be so naïve as to believe that her audiences are hearing anything other than a call to their nationalistic pride and a perverted sense of American exceptionalism?
On the other hand, together with any number of my fellow human beings on this endangered planet, I have throughout my adult life regarded patriotism with the skepticism it deserves; nationalism, its dangerously xenophobic cousin, historically prone to violence, is beyond the pale.
A very small amount of critical thought, it seems to me, is enough to discredit the notion of "country first," in a world that has grown so small in the past century and, to use NY Times columnist Tom Friedman's term, so flat. To put country first these days is to deliberately close one's eyes and mind to what we ignore only at the risk of our own well-being: our incontestable interdependence with our own and other species in the twenty-first century. What happens here in the United States will have ripple effects throughout the rest of the world; and the effects of what happens in China and India will inevitably be felt here. When the systems that have supported frogs and bees for centuries show signs of failure, we as humans must take care to pay attention and understand what that failure may eventually mean for us. We abandon our responsibility in such matters only at great risk to ourselves.
We cannot afford, in short, to put ourselves ahead of other nations, other peoples, even other species. We need to understand that we are NOT FIRST, that we are at best A PART. One of the reasons I remain stubbornly optimistic about an Obama presidency is that the man does seem to have a solid grasp of this reality. He defeated Hillary Clinton, in good part, by insisting that the resolution of our predicament--if any is possible at this late date--comes from the knowledge that it is not about "me," but rather about "us." It is not about America, but about the world in which America must now take its place--a leadership role, certainly, because we command so much of the power and the resources of this planet, but one role among the many.
"Country first" is precisely the wrong slogan for a twenty-first century political campaign, and one that sends precisely the wrong message to the rest of the world. To view ourselves as the best hope and savior of the world is to turn a blithely blind eye to the uncomfortable realty: that with our profligate consumption and our belief in American entitlement to wealth and creature comforts at the expense of others, we remain a big part of the problem.