New York City
July 4, 2000
Maybe the nicest thing about seeing "The Patriot" was standing in the ticket line, hearing my fellow Americans say that word. "Two for 'The Patriot' please." "One for 'The Patriot' at 5:30." Because no one I know uses the P word anymore. If they do, it's an adjectivepatriotic. But I seem to move in circles where even that word has been replaced by "jingoistic." Like the other night at the Magnolia Bakery after dinnerI was with some friends and we stopped in for desserteveryone went for the cookies or the banana cream pudding with 'Nilla wafers except for one guy, Andy. I pointed at his cupcake with the little American flag stuck in the top and asked him, "What made you get that?"
"I was feeling jingoistic," he said.
I enjoyed the movie. Watching a story line like that is always a relief. Of course the British must be expelled, just as the Confederates must surrender, Hitler must be crushed and yee-haw when the Red Sea swallows those slave-mongering Egyptians. At yet another recent dinner Stephen and I were arguing with Eric about the British royal family, whom Eric likes because "they make no sense." We spent forty-five minutes yelling, "No, Eric, there shouldn't be a monarchy!" It was the most fun I've had in months, taking the moral high ground on a topic free of the pitfalls of Cuban children or Palestinian statehood.
I've read some editorials about "The Patriot," the kind that always accompany any historical film, written by professors who insist things nobody cares about like Salieri wasn't that bad a sort or Roman gladiators maybe didn't really have Australian accents. A little anachronism is part of the fun and I don't mind if in real life General Cornwallis never lost a battle in the South, as he does rather gloriously in the film. Isn't art supposed to improve on life?
Personally, I think there's more than enough historical accuracy in "The Patriot" to keep the spoilsports happy. I'm part spoilsport, on my father's side, and I felt nagged with quandaries every few minutes during the three-hour film. American history is a quagmire, and the more one knows about it, the quaggier the mire gets. If you're paying attention during "The Patriot" and you know your history and you have a stake in that history, not to mention a conscience, the movie is not an entirely cartoonish march to glory. For example, Mel Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, doesn't want to fight the British at the beginning because he still feels bad about chopping up some Cherokee into little pieces during the French and Indian War. At that point, as a part-Cherokee person myself, I lost a little of the sympathy I'd stored up for Mel because he'd been underrated in "Conspiracy Theory." And did I mention Mel's character lives in South Carolina? So at the end of the movie, you just look at the youngest Mel junior bundled in his mother's arms and think, Mel just risked his life so that that kid's kids can rape their slaves and vote to be the first state to secede from the Union.
Now, I am not one of those America-first, flags-on-the-front-porch kind of patriots. I am more of a "despite" patriot, believing in the inherent truth and beauty of the nation's founding documents despite the fact we've never, not even in the beginningespecially in the beginninglived up to anything close to a more perfect union. But (A) show me somewhere better (and if you say your native Canada, Paul, I suggest you tell me why you moved to L.A.), and (B), I think I'm a better person because I have words like "more perfect union" to live up to. The other day, in the subway at 5:30, I was crammed into my sweaty, crabby fellow citizens and I kept whispering under my breath "we the people, we the people" over and over again, reminding myself we're all in this together and they had as much rightexactly as much rightas I to be in the muggy underground on their way to wherever they were on their way to.
"The Patriot" did confirm that I owe George Washington an apology. I always liked George fine, though I dismissed him as a mere soldier. I prefer the pen to the sword, so I've always been more of a Jeffersonhead. The words of the Declaration of Independence are so right and true that it seems like its poetry alone would have knocked King George III in the head. Like, he would have read this beloved passage, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rightsthat among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," and thought the notion so just, and yet still so wonderfully whimsical, that he would have dethroned himself on the spot. But no, it took a grueling, eight-year-long war to make independence a fact.
I never think of this.
I think about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution all the time. Mainly because I watch a lot of TV. I keep my small, 95-cent copy of the two documents handy so that I can fact-check the Constitutional interpretations in the shows of David E. Kelley and Aaron Sorkin. In my little booklet, the Declaration and the Constitution are separated by only a blank half-page. I forget that there are eleven years between them, eleven years of war and the whole Articles of Confederation debacle. In my head, the two documents are like the A-side and B-side of the greatest single ever released, recorded in one great drunken night, but no, there's a lot of bleeding life between them. Dead boys and dead Indians and Valley Forge.
I'm not much on war stories. I haven't hit anyone since I was twelve years old (hi, Sherry). I prefer verbal sparring, so I like courtroom dramas and, especially, Sorkin's "The West Wing." It's about the senior White House staff. It often leaves me clutching my Constitution in tears. It's a little hokey, but that's why I like it. Sometimes the framer-style rhetoric is so intense it sounds like an action movie. They really say things like, "Let's get out there and raise the level of public discourse!"
I swear Aaron Sorkin is sitting around with his 95-cent copy of the Constitution, too, reading the obscure bits. He conjured one surprisingly emotional story line, for example, out of the rather dry Article I, Section 2, the mandate for the census. Sorkin has picked up on something so obvious and simple. Namely, that the Constitution is and was a bottomless pit of story ideas a prophecy of the stories that were to come. Any of the first ten Amendments contains within it the potential energy of a million stories waiting to unfold. Freedom of the press? "Citizen Kane." The death of Diana. "All the President's men." The right to bear arms? Columbine, Lee Harvey Oswald, the scene in "Hannah and her Sisters" when Woody Allen's trying to kill himself with a shotgun but his forehead's so sweaty, the barrel slides off his face and the bullet flies into the wall. The right to a speedy and public trial? O.J., anyone?
A couple of times, I've forgotten to put the little Constitution booklet back on the shelf, and friends have stopped by, noticing it resting under the remote controls. I think they find my patriotism an amusing affectationthat it's cute and old-fashioned, the way I feel about the adorable way David's always bringing up Oscar damn Levant. I guess because my patriotism is so sentimental, so unthreatening. No one's ever put a bayonet in my hands to back it up. The closest I've come is shooting a Canadian while playing laser tag and going to Starbucks afterward: I sure miss you.
Happy Fourth of July,