Saturday, July 04, 2009

No patriotism without potlucks.

Hi everyone,

And now for some hilariously ironic karma embodied in a screw up by the Daily News.

This week's column was attributed to Owen Robinson -- who notes the mix up in his blog, but whose byline and picture accompanied the column in both the print and electronic versions.

The editor assured me they'd reprint it on Tuesday with the correct attribution. I'll include the link then.

I'd love the idea of Owen actually mentioning the Federalist Papers now and again, but I suspect that'll never happen. We can, of course, always hope.

In the meantime...

No patriots without potlucks

Two wildly different ideas lit some fireworks in my head last week while making plans for a Fourth of July potluck. First, I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, “In Defense Of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” where he lays out a menu of dangers from our increasing dependence on the convenience of fast food and asks one critical question: “whatever happened to real food?” Second, every year around The Fourth, as the media unfurl a sickly sweet nostalgia for an imaginary “good old days” – like red, white, and blue bunting to camouflage pressing national problems – I’m haunted by John Prine’s Vietnam-era song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” For the last decade we’ve been fighting wars overseas, and each other, over childish ideological disputes which encourage a kind of patriotism that, once carefully examined, is as thin – and long lasting – as a bumper sticker.

There’s a useful analogy here between the danger and addiction of fast food and the danger and addiction of flag-decal patriotism.

Like Pollan, I’d like to ask “whatever happened to real patriotism?” Like Pollan, I think the answer is that real patriotism has been replaced with a sugary substitute, packaged by media-savvy political parties to tickle our taste buds with lab-tested catch phrases, but with the nutritional value of a Twinkie. We’ve reduced patriotism from a meal to a snack: from something requiring time to cook, consume and appreciate, to something that takes the edge off your hunger without satisfying your real nutritional, or political, needs.

As a nation, we seem to have developed a taste for the glucose-saturated thrill of television commentators who parade their passionate commitment to a set of “values” as if a passionate commitment were the same thing as the inconvenient but more satisfying work of determining whether those values are the right ones. These guys don’t have political values; they have political tastes.

(For more information on the nutritional content and daily requirements of our political system, see James Madison’s Federalist paper No. 10. It’s a little chewy but it’s better for you than broccoli.)

So how do we kick this habit? When it comes to fast food, Pollan offers two pieces of deceptively simple advice: 1) eat more meals together and 2) don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. This is good advice politically as well as gastronomically.

Healthy patriotism needs a healthy nation, a healthy nation needs healthy communities, and healthy communities need healthy families – the wellspring from which all human civilization emerges. And what’s the centerpiece of all family life?

It’s the kitchen table.

Sharing a meal is how we first learn to get along with each other. It’s where children are socialized and, I hope, civilized. Table manners are the beginning of all manners, manners are the beginning of civility and civility is the beginning of self-governance.

Of course, you can survive without civility at the table, or in politics, but no one likes eating – or politicking – that way for long. It’s exhausting and it ruins what should be a terrifically pleasant and satisfying experience.

I think a healthy political diet is analogous to a good potluck. Everyone brings something a little different to the table. The dishes are prepared with other people in mind. Everyone tries a little bit of everything that looks good, while tolerating all the unfamiliar stuff plunked down on the table by those vegan cousins from California or by that uncle who lived in India during the ’60s. Most of all, you remain polite when you accidentally grab a scoop of something you hate. You may well ask yourself why some lunatic brought lime Jello mixed with shredded carrots and tuna fish – but you don’t say anything impolite; not because you’re not right about the Jello, but because indulging your indignation at a potluck with family or neighbors makes you into a boorish thug who won’t, and shouldn’t, be invited to any more potlucks.

So, this weekend, as we celebrate the nation’s birthday, remember that you’re actually sharing this meal of independence with friends and neighbors. Bring a dish your grandma would recognize as real food: liberty and justice for all, freedom that means accepting responsibility, respect for the rule of law. Remember to chew. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Say please and thank you. Offer to help with the clean up. Enjoy the day.

And one final reminder: Fourth of July fireworks are the dessert, not the meal.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a hilarious bit of kismet. I noticed it right away (which is unusual because I usually don't read his column.)