Notes on the Atrocities
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Tuesday, March 18, 2003  

American Nationalism

Nationalism (n) the conviction that the culture and interests of your nation are superior to those of any other nation. (Princeton)

Last night I watched I Am Cuba, a 1964 Soviet-produced anti-American movie about the Cuban revolution. (And not because—as the suspicious among you might imagine—I was in an anti-American pique after the President’s announcement of unilateral pre-emption. Actually it was because a friend had loaned us that DVD, left the country, and is due to return tomorrow: I couldn’t face the prospect of confessing I hadn’t watched it in the five months he was gone. I was, of course, caught in the throes of an anti-Bush pique as well.)

The film is a product of the socialist realism school, and it’s claim to fame is the extraordinary camerawork of director Mikhail Kalatozov. Deservedly so. But beyond that it’s a pretty lousy film, because the dogma is so obvious and cartoonish. It shows creepy American businessmen in the Batista era indulging their basest, capitalist-imperialist desires at the expense of hard-working Cubans. One narrative follows a prostitute whom we realize in 1.3 seconds is a metaphor for Cuba—prostituted to imperialists. And so it goes.

The film’s failure as art is revealed in 2003 much more obviously than it would have been 40 years ago. The hypotheses that saturate the film—that capitalism is the root of all evil, and assorted manifestations—seem silly and quaint at best. Film is most successful when it challenges the viewer to think. I Am Cuba doesn’t, because all the issues are settled in our mind: the result is an oddity from a lost age with bitchin’ camerawork.

Or maybe not. Watching a movie like I Am Cuba reminds us that so much of what we “know” is actually what we assume. It is instructive because we know that at one time, such a film—and films like it—were effective because people held different assumptions. Through the eyes of history, all nationalist rhetoric looks silly and quaint and often deadly dangerous. Nazi nationalism, particularly, fills me with dread because its so easy to see where it came from. Out of the desperation of WWI, Hitler fashioned a nationalism of pride and rage.

So it was interesting to watch that film on the day our own President (sort of) declared war. Over the coming days and weeks, Americans will be thrown into deep ambivalence: support for the troops on one hand, resentment and fear that the whole endeavor is a massive debacle on the other. Polls already show that the country is rallying around the President and the troops. Presumably, when the slightest events turn negative, those numbers will drop, reflecting the fear and resentment.

Standing on the edge of the abyss, I can’t help but think that the President’s arrogance is of the same, garden variety arrogance the world has seen so many times. I am willing to bet the farm that in 40 years, his nationalist rhetoric will look as quaint and silly as the Soviet Union’s does now. Americans are not patriots if they follow his blind arrogance—they’re nationalists. The commitment to the ideals of the Constitution are not embodied by a United States that invades countries pre-emptively and against the wishes of its allies. American nationalism is particularly alluring because we all participate in its manufacture—it doesn’t come from the propaganda ministry. But it’s still the same old nationalism. Real patriots question their leaders: patriotic leaders welcome the questions.

Oppose Bush's folly.

posted by Jeff | 9:38 AM |
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