Watching Trapped in the Closet with the Salams

Last night, I was talking to a friend about national sentiment on the left and the right.

To what extent is left patriotism — the kind of enthusiastic patriotism we saw during the Obama inauguration — fundamentally oppositional, i.e., defined in opposition to a cultural and political mainstream defined as narrow and intolerant? And if left patriotism is oppositional, is it sustainable? One idea in common currency on the left is that left patriotism is aspirational: America can achieve its founding ideals through struggle, and a critical engagement with the persistent failures of our culture and our governing institutions. A related notion is that right patriotism, or nationalism, is of a “right or wrong,” atavistic and chauvinistic character.

I mean, obviously these categories are very slippery. Another possibility, which another friend raised with me over burritos, is that the supposed tensions between left and right forms of nationalist sentiment track ethnocultural splits within the population. Traditional nationalist sentiments draw on folk culture and aspects of the natural landscape and patterns of settlement — dense and tidy, wide open spaces, etc. — yet of course the vast geographical extent of the USA, and the presence of several highly distinctive and enduring ethnocultures (I have in mind the David Hackett Fischer idea of surviving British folkways, which have evolved in response to the African-origin population and the various immigrant streams) tends to cut against a coherent nationalist narrative. So “left” and “right” patriotisms could be something else entirely, namely the cultural-ideological expressions of different regions and groups. There is a sense in which the whole country has a love/hate relationship with New York city, in no small part due to its cosmopolitanism and self-regard. But New York city is both cosmopolitan and American — it embodies much of the what radicals and paleos hate most about American life. In the same vein, the slower-paced, more homogeneous slices of the country in which there is less churn, i.e., fewer people moving in and out, are also authentically American, but cosmopolitanism cuts against their self-perception.

I was thinking about the extraordinary cultural creativity of the last 8 years, and of the 1980s. Of course, very little of this has to do with the Bush presidency, or rather the cultural creativity was orthogonal to Washington, or in tension with it in various ways. And isn’t this the stuff that matters and that endures?

Speaking of enduring things … One of the highlights of my very good weekend was watching the facial expressions of my parents and my middle sister as I introduced them to key scenes from R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closest. I saw delight, confusion, furrowed brows, profound concern, more delight, and also more confusion. I also had the distinct displeasure of explaining some of Kelly’s legal imbroglios, which was awkward.

I also watched Wild Combination, a beautful film by Matt Wolf on the life of Arthur Russell, one of my favorite musicians. As an eccentric genius and loner, one gets the sense that Russell wasn’t terribly political. But as a gay man who fled Iowa for a Buddhist commune in San Francisco and later bohemian New York, you get the impression that he bristled at the conformity of small town life, preferring the conformity of militant Buddhism — I kid! My favorite part of the movie is seeing Arthur Russell’s parents describe, in frank and moving terms, their relationship with their son, who was clearly difficult but also sensitive and charming and very talented from an early age. The elder Russells are clearly kind of square, but, in this very American way, they also roll with the punches and have this very droll sense of humor. I’m saddened by the idea that our political and ideological divides would map onto our cultural terrain in such a way that people who’d find Russell’s music engrossing and powerful won’t wind up listening to it, or will assume that it’s not something they’d find accessible or palatable. I know that I’m smuggling in lots of built-in assumptions that derive from growing up where I did — privileging openness and experimentation over a life of rigorous principle, etc.

In this very na├»ve way, I’m feeling pro-mutual understanding right now.