Rhetorical Gestures and Patriotism

I’m reading Joan Didion again.  It’s hard to stay away for too terribly long.  Reading as she thinks through modern political events, however, is particularly fascinating.

I recently read her very short book – more like a long essay published in a tiny volume – entitled Fixed Ideas.  In it she makes note of the political trends and the changes in language and debate that she observed in the wake of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.  Of particular interest for her is the substitution of symbols – pins, reference to “heroes,” patriotic colors, eagles, and the like – for genuine political discourse and the active role the federal government played in making it.  She writes at some length about flags, in particular, and their abundance in her neighborhood in Manhattan.  She thought it curious that a hotbed of liberalism and university “radical” dissent bought in so quickly to the sort of symbolic patriotism indicated by literal flag-waving of that sort.  More important was her observation that other parts of New York did not experience a similar increase in the number of flags visible from the street:

“I did not interpret this as an absence of feeling for the country above 96th Street.  I interpreted it as an absence of trust in the efficacy of rhetorical gestures.”

In this observation, Didion notes that she counted fewer flags in a trip from Washington Heights (generally thought of as starting somewhere north of the George Washington Bridge in the 180s) down to her apartment (near Central Park below 96th Street) than she counted a various times on her building alone.

It’s important to note what Didion means when she refers to the parts of Manhattan “above 96th Street.”  In the early 2000s, the blocks north of 96th were a sort of suburb of Harlem and were overwhelming black and latino.  When Didion contrasts this absence of trust with the uncritical flaunting of symbols of those “below” 96th Street, she is specifically comparing the shallow patriotism exhibited in wealthy white communities with the skepticism of communities of color.

Didion uses this comparison as part of her critique of the blank trust and blind lack of interest in context on the part of the vast majority of Americans in the wake of 9/11, but we wield similar comparisons regularly as a means of silencing the protest and dissent of activists and people of color.

In recent years, for example, there has been enormous popular backlash against President Obama’s suggestions that killings of young black men may have been unjust, protest movements to address similar killings, calls to better address the legacy of slavery in our country’s founding, and the silent protest of Colin Kaepernick.  Didion suggests that we not only ask why those protesting and looking askance at bombastic displays of patriotism might have “an absence of trust in the efficacy of rhetorical gestures,” but also why those who cling so tightly to those gestures feel compelled to do so.