The Truth about Patriotism by Steven Johnston
What could have been an incisive and relevant tour through the self-destructive quality of modern patriotism turns into one of the worst slogs of a read released in a long time.
The Truth about PatriotismPublisher: Duke University Press
Author: Steven Johnston
US publication date: 2007-07
There is a whole class of books that frustrate by mixing an important, interesting premise with mind-numbing prose. They are almost universally authored by college professors, with philosophy professors being the worst offenders. History and political science scholars are a close second. Absent the litany of university publishers and the course syllabi inflicted on thousands of unsuspecting students each year, upwards of 80-percent of these books would never see the dusty light of a bookshop.
Do these professors think they’re writing in the same way ordinary human beings do? If so, they’re deluding themselves. More likely, they would argue that to write in pedestrian ways would make it impossible to fully convey the complexity of their subjects. They seem to be missing the point that books were meant to convey information to readers. That implies a certain necessity that the books be understood, yet these authors seem hell bent on making their prose indecipherable.
Take, as just one of the latest examples, Steven Johnston’s The Truth About Patriotism. Presented as an argument that patriotism is ultimately corrosive to the democracy it allegedly supports, it is a provocative premise. In this post-9/11 world, with conservatives questioning the patriotism of war critics while we pursue a never ending "War on Terror", what could be more worthwhile than a close examination of whether flag waving is really serving or harming the populace? What are they fighting for, if not their own democracy, and if their democracy is subverted in the fight, have they lost already?
In the hands of Johnston, however, what could have been an incisive and relevant tour through the self-destructive quality of modern patriotism turns into one of the worst slogs of a read released in a long time. Maybe it’s not his fault. Maybe he just can’t help himself. An associate professor of political science at the University of South Florida, Johnston specializes in political philosophy, a double whammy of intellectual illegibility.
Take the following samplings, randomly pulled from the 231 pages:
“Either way, homelessness engenders homesickness, a yearning to be one with the world to which you belong. This longing, anti-tragic to the core, encompasses patriotism and the professions of love defining it – which, if anything, bring the very object of love, namely country, into being in the first place.”
Got that? Try this one:
“Death’s prominence raises questions, however. Can patriotism survive death’s constitution of it? Can democracy afford patriotism’s cost? Does democracy’s alleged guarantor ensure its demise? What does it mean to theorize healthy forms of patriotism if all forms possess an umbilical link to death?”
Umm… you bet.
This goes on . . . and on, and on . . . and anybody not tasked with reviewing the whole book would be forgiven for leaving it well before Johnston begins his dissection of the film Saving Private Ryan on page 103. Oliver Stone’s JFK and a good chunk of Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre also come in for analysis, as do a host of American monuments and memorials. If you think the pop culture references make the book accessible, try not to be too disappointed.
Describing a rock star as “formed [by] a series of responses to an underlying tragic condition chameleonic in character,” as opposed to some obscure political philosopher, does not make a book more accessible. It doesn’t even make it more relevant, and how an author could make a book about patriotism and democracy seem irrelevant in today’s world is beyond me. Johnston has accomplished it.
There is also his abuse of the word “transmogrified”, if we’re listing the ways he numbs the reader into submission, but I’ll stop there. Some will respond, just as their knee jerks, that such critiques reflect a lesser intellect in the critic, not a flaw in the author. In other words, I’m dumb, because I can’t figure out what it means to “respond affirmatively and imaginatively to life’s polymorphous, productive energies.”
Well, maybe. But if I’m dumb, I’m not alone. Does an author really want to presume his audience is dumb and speak over them? How cynical do you have to be to pull that one off? In any case, I don’t believe Johnston thinks that way. He’s obviously passionate about the beliefs he puts forth here, and he obviously wants us to think long and hard about them. It’s debatable which would be worse, that he thinks we’re too dumb to get this or that he thinks any of this is intelligible.
The truth is, he was hobbled out of the gate. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines patriotism as “devoted love, support, and defense of one's country.” It’s a simple definition, easy to grasp, and yet it holds layers of complexity for a clever thinker to explore. Simply put, yet full of complexity, was apparently not enough for Johnston. This is his definition:
“Patriotism means love of country, an affective comportment as strong as any other attachment in life. It’s rooted in the faith that your country is special, even unique, and the resultant conviction that love obligates you and others to certain norms of feeling and conduct. Patriotism necessitates a willingness to sacrifice life, given the omnipresence of enemies in a very dangerous world.”
You could spend an entire book trying to untangle that definition alone. Johnston should have written it.