07/04/2006 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thoughts About Patriotism on the Fourth of July

I remember arguing with Noam Chomsky about this back in the mid-'70s. I was trying to identify a certain level of patriotism, something short of nationalism, that I wanted to call natural and inherently admirable. He was skeptical, of course, but when I got it down to the level of locality and accident, he was much more open to it. The bonding that happens between people thrown together in a situation -- everything from summer camp to members of the same platoon. That kind of connection has to be recognized and given its due, which is a lot of respect, because it's an essential human virtue.

The problems start when that kind of natural connection gets projected onto giant represented entities by modern media. The classic book on this topic is called Imagined Communities, but it was written long before we had the completely mediated politics we have today. The process involved is similar though. What happens is that, because most people don't read seriously about events far removed from them in time and space (which is also perfectly natural), events like 9/11 occur in an historical vacuum. TV coverage, being what it is, relentlessly maintains the vacuum. As a result, most people don't think about what they really mean by all the highly charged patriotic phrases that cement their political identifications, that make their hearts beat as one with their leader's when he calls upon them for support in a crisis.

When these people talk of patriotism, of love of country, of pride in being American, what actually happens is this: very rich and deep and, above all, specific feelings for family and friends and neighborhoods, for places they vacationed as children and hung out as teenagers, places where they courted their wives and husbands, places where they lost them too -- all the places they belong to -- the particular smell of a school hallway, the mood of an empty intersection at the center of town, when you stop at the traffic light, just before dawn -- a host of attachments like that get projected onto the giant geo-political entities presented to them through media. The striking symbols and stirring anthems, images of people-like-us suffering, images of people-like-them enraged, on and on until it is very difficult to distinguish between what you identify with directly and those mediated caricatures of the larger realities that concern Leaders of the Big Entities.

The result is that the natural and noble sentiments that arise from the real experience of direct community become so terribly susceptible to being hijacked by Leaders of Big Entities with agendas of their own. That's what happened in the case of this war, and that leaves me feeling very ambivalent about patriotism on this July 4th...