Sunday, January 18, 2004

Hail, Hail, Fredonia!

I lived in Pittsburgh during the glory years of the Steelers and then moved to San Francisco a couple of months before for the first 49er Superbowl win. I recall sitting on packing case in my new apartment watching a Monday night game between the reigning champs and the 49ers. By halftime, if I remember rightly, the 49ers were ahead and I was cursing under my breath. And then I had an epiphany. I looked out the window, saw the Golden Gate Bridge, and started yelling, “Go Niners!”

Like everything else in this country, loyalty to the team is just another form of entertainment. You don’t root, root for the home team because the players or owners have anything to do with your home town or even because it is your hometown except in the most notional sense. The identity to which you swear allegiance is like a decal that can be slapped on your luggage and just as easily removed. One acquires it along with the lease the same way General Stanley got his ancestors. Hooting and screaming at the stadium along with the rest of the rented Mannerbund is another one of those civilized practices like prostitution in which a natural pleasure—baying in packs—is detached from its original biological context and made an end in itself. I have no objection. But things can get dicey when enthusiasm for genuine blood sports is cultivated artificially.

It is probably rash of me to suggest that patriotism in its modern American form is more a pastime than a virtue. After all, thoughtful people hesitate to criticize patriotism if only because they may want to urge other people to die for their country at some point. Anyhow, there was a time in our history when patriotism was more than a conditioned response to bunting and fireworks. The patriotism of the founders was fervent and sometimes distinctly adolescent but it was also rational in a way that would now be denounced as merely liberal. America was worth fighting for because it represented a really good idea. But that kind of patriotism was less a pleasure than a duty. To dwell in the City on the Hill was not to inhabit a Penthouse; and to belong to a Chosen People was not to be tapped for Skull and Bones.

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