Monday, April 28, 2014

The gradually-shrinking expression of regard for one's country

Originally (although there were similar-sounding expressions that predated it), the quote attributed to Carl Schurz went as follows:
My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
Schurz – who was born in Germany and eventually ended up in America in his early twenties after what you'd have to call a politically-stormy youth – coined the phrase while a U.S. Senator in 1878. He delivered the line during a floor speech opposing arms sales to France and responding to suggestions by a fellow Senator that Schurz's opposition, combined with the facts of his origins, meant he was not what we would later call "100% American" and therefore somehow his patriotism might be called into question. Just so you know that some things never change. (In addition to his time as a Senator, at one time or another Schurz also served as Secretary of the Interior, General of the Union Army, and Minister to Spain.)

By the time of the virulent anti-communism of the McCarthy era, and reaching its peak in the Nixon years of the Vietnam War, the slogan had been halved, since the possibility of actual error apparently seemed no longer worth considering or at least insufficiently jingoistic. Thus:
My country right or wrong.
And, of course, there were no automobiles in 1878, so it hadn't been a requirement back then that expressions of political sentiment must fit on a bumper sticker.

Now we find ourselves watching the slow-motion spectacle of Cliven Bundy, a squatter on federal land, who firmly believes he's in the right because he does not recognize the federal government – which is odd, because the federal government feels certain it recognizes him. Rather than being shunned as a crackpot or a grifter, or both, Bundy has been cheered on by D-list local politicians (many of whom work, or would like to work, for branches of that non-existent government) and grasping media personalities (whose access to the broadcast spectrum is protected by that non-existent government), not to mention armed camo-wearing men (who proudly claim that armed standoffs like this are precisely the reason that the U.S. Constitution, which established the non-existent federal government, has a Second Amendment).

(Or at least they were cheering him on, until he uncorked some nostalgia for the Peculiar Institution – old times there are not forgotten; did you know that? – that made even some of his loyalists feel that some temporary distance between themselves and Bundy might be for the best. One imagines they'll patch all that up shortly.)

So now, the remains of Schurz's original, balanced expression of reasoned support for one's government have been whittled away to something so simple and easily-learned that it's one of the first words a two-year-old masters:
And you don't even need a bumper sticker for that. You could fit it on the head of a thumbtack.

Our condolences to Senator Schurz.

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