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IN PRAISE OF UNSPEAKABLE THINGS

John Chuckman

When I turn to the opinion pages of a major newspaper in the muscular, brawling Midwestern city where I grew up, it’s an unpleasantly fascinating experience, a little like what I imagine a victim of child abuse might feel, smiling at a family gathering, still painfully hoping to sense some normal affection from someone who has done unspeakable things.

The newspaper’s opinion pages recently have overflowed like a plugged toilet with unappetizing sludge you might call Franklin Graham patriotism. This a lethal mix of baton-twirling Christianity and “Let’s nuke ‘em” – all delivered in the heartwarming drawl of speakers at a Jesse Helms testimonial dinner.

The poisonous sludge fairly bubbles with sentiments along the lines of: “Like Mom was telling me the time I was on leave from ‘Nam and we first met Mickey Mouse at Disney World….”

Letters praising people for flying little flags on their car antennas. Letters upbraiding people who let their little car-antenna flags fall on the street. A letter telling us how the writer stopped three times in one day to pick up fallen antenna-flags off the street. A letter from someone plaintively whining over a flag swiped from his lawn at night and pleading for its quiet return. I suspect this last one was from a newcomer to Chicago, because when I was growing up, everyone knew anything left outside would disappear.

Letters and editorials crow over the new show of patriotism, as though a lost art had been re-kindled, or a great idea re-discovered. An exciting renaissance of jingoism. It’s as though the Baby-Boom generation had pulled their SUVs en masse up to a revival-tent meeting and come forward to speak in tongues and roll on the floor. Gratifying, indeed.

It’s no use asking why that’s a good thing, although one suspects it’s so they’ll cheerfully pay the cost of a bountiful Christmas this year, and of many to come, for the those fine patriots in the defense industry. Likely too, it’s so they’ll meekly embrace the serious loss of freedom Mr. Bush has thoughtfully shepherded into law.

But the letter that meant the most to me was the one commenting on a front-page picture of a Special Forces soldier. The writer went into paroxysms of admiration for this shining, clean-living model for America’s youth, obviously unaware that this was the bunch of thugs that unquestioningly assassinated at least 20,000 civilian village leaders in Project Phoenix during the Viet Nam War. Ah yes, I thought, might this letter not easily, with a few names changed, be that of a middle-aged German in, say, 1940 praising the pressed uniform and smart attitude of a young SS officer as an example to all German youth.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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