For Your Consideration

I spend a fair amount of time grazing through the pastures of online journalism, looking for  commentary, criticism or reportage to pass along. Herewith, recent articles I find interesting, by a pair of writers I have followed for some time.

The first is “The Uses of Patriotism,” by David Brooks. As a conservative columnist at America’s most famously liberal newspaper, Brooks serves as a well-paid opinion bag, available for pummeling by the hyper-articulate crew of Times readers. My own take on him is mixed. I appreciate his earnest dedication to citizenship (shocked by the Trump ascension, he upbraided himself for being too cut off from Main Street America, and promised to do better), and the way his personal mildness serves as counter-example to today’s abrasively partisan oppo journalism. But as a writer he has a habit of resorting to facile dichotomies, and he’s a bit of a milquetoast—so nice on the page, it can seem a tactic for pre-empting disagreement.

In his column on patriotism Brooks addresses high-school athletes across the country who have emulated NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice by refusing to stand at attention during the national anthem. Playing the high-school principal, Brooks announces that “I’m going to try to persuade you that what you’re doing is extremely counterproductive.” He goes on to argue that America’s founding ideals, including that of equality, constitute a “civic religion” that gives us goals to live up to, both as individuals and as a country. Civic religion requires attitudes and acts of reverence, and pledging allegiance to the flag, Brooks argues, is one such act. Progressive social critics who see only failure and hypocrisy in our national ideals have been portraying civic religion as fundamentally corrupt and false; and the result, Brooks asserts, has been “a sharp decline in American patriotism.” Brooks wants to redeem patriotism by connecting it to American idealism in a practical, even structural way:

When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America. We’re fortifying our foundational creed.... We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled. If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence we will have lost the idea system that has always motivated reform....

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story.... I hear you when you say you are unhappy with the way things are going in America. But the answer to what’s wrong in America is America — the aspirations passed down generation after generation and sung in unison week by week.

We have a crisis of solidarity. That makes it hard to solve every other problem we have. When you stand and sing the national anthem, you are building a little solidarity, and you’re singing a radical song about a radical place.

I have to chuckle at that last sentence, and the prospect of the nerdy Dad trying to convince the kids that some musty obligation is in fact “radical.” Yet I value this column for its lucidity and its polite directness. Quietly, it forces you to decide what you think; you either have to agree with Brooks, or disagree. For my part, I see the nature and function of symbolic protests differently, and so I disagree. But that’s part of what I appreciate in Brooks’ essay. Like a good parent or teacher, he’s willing and able to be disagreed with. He’s not shouting, he’s talking... and then sitting back to listen. That these qualities should be seen as exceptional is a disheartening evidence of how noisy and inhospitable our public square has become.  

The second piece I’ll pass along is New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s review of Blood in the Water, an account of the 1971 tragedy at Attica State Prison, by historian Heather Ann Thompson. Gopnik is the kind of writer whose lengthy articles seem to prove the old joke about how New Yorker writers must be paid by the word, since they go on forever. He  has ideas about everything, and moreover he revels in his own sentences. Sometimes his writing can seem fussy and convoluted—digressing excessively, making mountains out of molehills via complex metaphors that the material can't support.

And then another topic comes along...and he knocks it out of the park. To me his Attica piece represents the best of what the review-essay, as a form, can do. Attentive to the book under review, it nevertheless roams far from it, bringing in assorted other sources and perspectives to shed light on the events at Attica, but always circling back to summarize and evaluate Thompson’s effort. Gopnik takes us back to a fraught social and political moment, evoking what was quite different about the U.S. of forty-five years ago even as he places the issues of race, violence, and incarceration front and center, in a way that implicates not only 1971 but 2016 as well. As a result his essay is both historical and actual. And, as always with Gopnik, it bears traces of pungent wit. “Thompson’s book demonstrates one thing for certain: no matter how badly you think of Richard Nixon, you have not thought badly enough.” Nice.

This is still (mere) book reviewing, but of a high order. Indeed, if I have any criticism, it’s that Gopnik covers the events of the uprising so fully, and assesses its significance so insightfully, that by the time you’re through, you may not need to read Thompson’s book.

But what’s a good review for, after all?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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