My country, right or wrong

This bizarre, odious and possibly insane sentiment originated with a slightly more innocuous toast by Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), an American patriot of the post-Revolutionary period (when it no doubt seemed very sound). In 1816 he proposed thus:

Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be right; but our country, right or wrong. (Quoted in A. S. Mackenzie, Life of Decatur, ch. 14)

Carl Schurz [?] made a better stab at it:

Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.

But ‘my country, right or wrong’ (only the other side of vox populi, vox dei) is all that has come down to popular consciousness, and to provide countless little reactionaries with a rhetorical flourish to their vulgarity, in response to which GK Chesterton replied:

“My country, right or wrong,” is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober”.

Nor do all Americans share Decatur’s views:

You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it. (Malcolm X)

And in general, to a European ear, so much of American ideals and ideology is barely intelligible. As GK Chesterton also said:

There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong.(New York Times, 1st February, 1931)

The ideal American certainly seems to live on a very different planet from most real Europeans. He (and the ideal American is a he) still believes in Old Glory, the unity (more or less) of his country (E pluribus unum) and that no Presidential candidate is worth a vote unless they can command an occasional tête à tête with the Almighty:

It is inconceivable to me that anyone would think that he could do this job, the Presidency, if he couldn’t call on God for help and have faith that he’d be granted that help. (Ronald Reagan, Time, 15th May, 1976)

To which the Almighty replied (through his amanuensis, Edward Sorel):

Go figure it!? The devil gets H. L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, Sam Clemens, Billie Holliday, Gershwin, Porter, Schubert… and… and I… I keep getting dreck like this!!! (From Superpen: The Cartoons and Caricatures of Edward Sorel)

[Add Sorel cartoon of US Presidents talking to God.]

Such sentiments seem more than a little bizarre this side of the Pond. Still, the mere fact that Americans believe amazing things is not the only reason Europeans are so prone to discount and patronise American culture and thinking. On this side of the Atlantic, anti-Americanism is the acceptable face of racism. In any case, the Old World seethes with equally reactionary sentiments; we are simply too sophisticated, if that is the word, to say what we mean. After all, it is only a decade or so since Anthony Blunt was pilloried for preferring to work for a country in whose future he sincerely believed – the Soviet Union – rather than an ugly and decadent Britain busy appeasing Hitler. Of course, he would have fared at least as badly in the United States, not only as an enemy agent but also as a ‘premature anti-fascist’, as they used to say at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Apparently you can object to mass murder too soon for the US Congress.

Americans despise Europeans because they have no money. Europeans despise Americans because they have no culture.

[Johnson and Bierce on patriotism.]

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

Leave a Reply