Trampling Our Country
My friend Michael Warren Davis, a Catholic journalist, wrote this to me just now. I publish it here with his permission. I think it is profound:
In his essay Clio, Charles Peguy celebrates the idea of a “cult of the founder.” He writes:How right the ancients were, dear friends, to have celebrated, feasted, and commemorated the foundation of a city; to have realized that the city was a being, a living being, and that its foundation was no ordinary action, but a religious action; something out of the ordinary and solemn, worthy of solemnization…This has always been the best Christian argument for patriotism. Patriotism follows naturally from the Fifth Commandment: to honor one’s father and mother, the fathers and mothers of our nation. It’s an act of gratitude—a simple recognition that, were it not for them, we wouldn’t be here.It’s also an act of humility. We forgive our fathers their imperfections, hoping that our sons will forgive ours. We love our nation, not despite its imperfections, but because of those imperfections. Because we, too, are imperfect, and if anyone is ever going to love us, they too must be prepared to love the imperfect. True patriots are always humble; true patriotism isn’t possible without humility.Call it whatever you like. What transpired in Washington today, it was not patriotic. The men who attacked the Capitol were not patriots.The Capitol Building is the house that our Founding Fathers built. It’s the cradle of our Republic—our beautiful, beleaguered, imperfect Republic. The British sacked it in 1812 because they hated the Republic. How can the MAGA mob do the same, and claim to be acting out of love for the Republic? How can anyone now ransack our Fathers’ house and claim to be acting in our Fathers’ name?You know as well as I do, Rod, that this has always been the real problem with the Left’s iconoclasm. It wasn’t about the slabs of marble and stone, however artfully crafted. By disowning the fathers of our nation (Columbus, Serra, Washington, Jefferson, et al.)the iconoclasts were attacking our common parentage. They attacked the spirit of gratitude, of humility, that makes it possible for Americans to exist as a national family.By disowning our fathers, they were giving themselves an excuse to disown our brothers. They demanded we accept certain political doctrines before they would accept us as their own. They put a litmus test on their loyalty, on their love—not only for their countrymen, but for their country. They were granting themselves permission to hate.Russell Kirk once said, “The conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.” The MAGA mob, no less than Antifa, makes it impossible for us to imagine loving our neighbor—our countrymen—if they disagree with us politically. Both sects have made clear that, if we dissent from their ideology, they’re ready to do violence against us.Both the Left and the Right dabble in political violence because we have no idea what it would actually be like to live in a nation where our countrymen truly hate one another. The Left felt free to burn down the ghettoes of Minneapolis because we long ago stopped caring about those poor folk; we assumed they would be miserable their whole lives anyway. They felt free to loot Fifth Avenue in New York because those rich folks could take the hit.That’s wrong, but that’s the way it is.The Right just made political violence imminent for all Americans. We may not feel any fellow-feeling for the Minneapolis poor or the New York rich, but when we see Trumpists brawling with Capital Police in the Senate Chamber, that touches every single American. That’s your Senate—no matter where you live, or what color your skin is, or how many zeroes you tack on the end of your net worth.As of today, every American in the country has legitimate reason to expect that he’ll be touched by political violence. Not only the very rich, or the very poor, but every single one of us. We can well imagine that our neighbor hates us, and that he’s willing to harm us for the sake of his political agenda.The Right has to own that. We can’t get around that. It’s on us.This may all be a huge gas for the time being. Only one woman died in the Battle of Capitol Hill (2020), God rest her soul. But, again, we haven’t even tasted life in a nation where our countrymen truly hate one another. We’re going to find out.When we do, lots of Americans are going to realize why Christians believe that loving one’s enemy is, not only a virtue, but a duty. We’re going to wish we felt that reverence for our national symbols—be they statues of Washington or the Capitol Building—to remind us of our common parentage, and to engender something like fraternal love.That was the only real duty of conservatives at this historic juncture, and we have manifestly failed. God help us.
On the morning of September 11, 2002, I walked over to Ground Zero for the solemn observation of the anniversary. I stood on the north side of the hole, at the perimeter, waiting for the service to start. The crowd was behind a fence; none of us had access to the site itself, which was reserved for families and dignitaries. It was important, though, to be there.
Suddenly, at the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, a powerful wind descended from the same direction of that plane. It was from Hurricane Gustav, which had come ashore in the Carolinas, and was rolling up the East Coast. Still, I was there, and the timing was very, very weird. It blew a fairly steady 60 mph all morning. A friend who had been watching the services live on TV said that one of the commenters called the wind “Biblical.” If you were down there in that wind, as I was, it seemed apt.
The wind was still blowing later that morning when I went into Trinity Church Wall Street for a memorial service celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. At some point during the church service, we could hear a signal from adjacent Ground Zero, indicating that all the names of the dead had been read, and that the ceremony there was ending. Shortly after, the church liturgy ended, and I emerged outside to calm. The winds had stopped. I don’t know when the ceased to blow, but I can tell you it was in the relatively short time between the start and end of the church service.
If I had to bet money, I’d say that the winds stopped blowing when the last names were read at Ground Zero. It was that kind of morning.
Later in the day, I received a call from a friend I had run into at Ground Zero that morning. She was fairly freaked out, and asked me to come over at once. I made my way to her apartment. She led me into her tiny home office, and showed me a small American flag, so old and threadbare that you could see through it, framed and under glass, hanging on her wall. A tear ran through it, almost from top to bottom.
It wasn’t obvious to me what the issue was. Then she told me: she’s had that flag on the wall for years, and it was fine. It was position right across from her desk. She looked at it every day. But that morning — September 11, 2002 — while she was out in the crowd at Ground Zero, something happened to it. It had torn down the middle, even though it was sealed under glass, and nobody had come into her home.
This really did happen. I have lost contact with that friend, but I wonder what she thinks of it today. Both of us are believing Christians, and we could not help seeing it in light of the Biblical account of the tearing of the veil in the Temple when Jesus died on the Cross. That event has multiple meanings in Christian belief, and among them is a prophecy of the ultimate destruction of the Temple itself, which took place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD. I left my friend’s apartment wondering if the tearing of the flag — assuming that there was symbolic meaning behind it — meant that there was a withdrawal of God’s favor on the US, and that 9/11 was the beginning of our end.
Granted, I have an apocalyptic mindset, and even if I didn’t, it was very easy to think in apocalyptic terms in those days, living so close to Ground Zero. On the other hand, I was also primed to think that 9/11 was going to summon up the strength of our great nation, and goad us to assert ourselves on the world stage. The United States was at that moment the sole hyperpower on the planet. We were at the peak of our strength. We would soon be going to war in the Middle East, that was clear by then. Now, finally, we would set the world to right. I was not eager to believe in portents that cast doubt on that project. I was in those days filled with patriotic righteousness — which is why the tearing of the flag was so eerie, and unwelcome to me.
That’s what I saw on 9/11/2002. Maybe it was just a fluke. Maybe that flag had come apart earlier, and my friend only noticed it on that morning. But: in light of everything that has happened since then — and that continues to happen — that torn flag seems to me like the omen I feared it was at the time.
UPDATE: Reader MoreFisher writes:
The [Jordan Peterson] “Maps of Meaning” course provides a good framework for yesterday’s events and all the commentary around it. Humans divide the world between explored/conquered territory and unknown/chaotic territory. Right down to how we physically navigate a room, and up to the level of our assumptions of macro-societal structures. Intellect is the faculty that maps the known and the unknown, rendering most of what we experience irrelevant to survival, and allowing us to maintain stress at manageable levels so we can develop our personalities. When our maps are correct (reinforced by exploration), then what we assume to be reliable actually is reliable, and we grow in strength and health. When the maps fail, what was irrelevant to survival suddenly becomes extremely relevant, and tremendous stress results until a new reliable map is built, however long that takes. And what we regard as “sacred” are the things we can least tolerate being wiped off the map of explored and reliable territory. So obviously the category of “sacred” involves both religious and secular institutions.
Most ordinary people regard the bedrock institutions of government as sacred in this way. Like the way we view the banking system for example. If your life’s savings were in the bank, and one day it went up in smoke and the FDIC wouldn’t take your calls, your prior map of explored/conquered territory would be blown up, your level of distress would be extreme, and you’d enter into an entirely new mode of being. The same psychological phenomenon occurs when buffalo-suited maniacs rampage through the Capitol and you watch it in disbelief. Your map of the world has been demonstrated to be wrong. So your animal survival circuits kick in, your stress levels skyrocket, and you prepare for violence. You can imagine where that all goes if new maps don’t get built right quick. It’s why treason is the original capital crime, and why Dante put the traitors in the deepest circle of Hell.
The people who rampaged through the Capitol would have been hanged at dawn if we understood any of this.
Great comment. That’s why I used Jesus’s quote about heading for the hills of Judea. When a political mob carries out this kind of transgression, it is a sign of much deeper disorder, signaling trouble to come. The election of Donald Trump was a similar sign of the times.
In the Divine Comedy, the great villain is Pope Boniface VIII. And yet, Dante also condemns the French soldiers who confronted the pope at his villa and slapped him across the face (an indignity that the elderly pope did not long survive). The reason for Dante’s literary choice is akin to what you’ve written.