Anthony Esolen’s American patriotism and the Great Western Dead

By Jonathon Van Maren

Because professional sports disinterest me to the point of boredom, I didn’t write anything about the ongoing NFL protests over the weekend. Frankly, I don’t agree with anyone on this issue: As a pro-life activist, I think peaceful protest can be a good thing and I think compulsive patriotism is a contradiction in terms. I also happen to think that we’d all be better off if less wives turned into Football Widows during playoff season, if people didn’t spent their Sundays watching sports, and if the modern gladiatorial contests that result in men injuring each other for life weren’t such an important part of American life. So if the result of this stupid protest fracas is that people abandon the NFL and do something better with their time, that seems like a pretty good outcome to me.

There have been plenty of good columns on this issue over the past week, most explaining how Trump utilizes pointless little culture battles like this to portray himself as a patriot and gain more voters while distracting from real issues (like his cutting a deal with the Democrats on immigration and failing on healthcare reform again.) But as I was scrolling through my feed, I spotted Anthony Esolen’s take on the issue. Esolen is the sort of writer that makes other writers want to burn all of their own work—his paragraphs are pure poetry. For example, this was his Facebook status—not even a column—on the NFL protests:

What I love about the United States has almost nothing to do with its government, present or past, and has little to do with the ideas that are said to have animated its founders, much as I respect most of them (Madison, Ellsworth, Carroll, Dickinson, Washington, Adams). I love the mountains and rivers, the barbed and colorful language of its regions, the games and pastimes, the generosity of its people, their fighting spirit, their eagerness to be first with food and medicine when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the Huckleberry Finn that dwells in the heart of the American boy, and the spunky Laura Ingalls that dwells in the heart of the American girl. Can we imagine Aaron Copeland in France? America is Copeland, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Billie Holliday, Glenn Miller. Can we imagine Norman Rockwell in Italy? America is Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and Grandma Moses. I am proud of maple syrup, cheese steaks, honeydew melons, funnel cakes, hamburgers on the grill in the back yard. I like places with such names as Watkins Glen, Wind Gap, Hackettstown, Fort Scott, and Mauch Chunk. I like the broad and rocky Susquehanna and the mighty rain-fed Ohio.

Has America lived up to its ideals? No, and no nation ever has. America’s apostasy is all the more painful because she, as Chesterton said, had the “soul of a church,” and now that that is gone, there is no soul left. Can she recover? By a miracle of God, yes. Otherwise she joins the rest of the Great Western Dead, which includes other nations that I have reason to love: Canada, England, Italy. So what’s to protest, NFL players? The sheets on a dying old woman? More a cause to weep than to grow indignant.

That is perfectly stated. Esolen again captures the state of the culture and the reasons to fight for it in just a few lines—his book Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture was the best book I’ve read all year, and I followed that up by having a fascinating conversation with Esolen on how to fight the culture war. He manages to sum up the reasons for patriotism without getting jingoistic—and that takes talent these days.

I feel the same way he does about the Great Western Dead. I was born in the United States, and was part of a church community in Washington for years. I’ve grown close to many activists in the American pro-life movement over the past decade. I spent most of my life in Canada, and have lived in Vancouver, Calgary, and Southern Ontario. My family is also Dutch on both sides, and I didn’t realize just how Dutch we were until I read a book I bought at the Amsterdam Airport, Why the Dutch Are Different, and discovered that many things I thought were normal were actually very specific to Dutch culture. And growing up with English as my first language, it was natural that I would become an Anglophile. But the Netherlands is now on the cutting edge of medical killing and institutionalized hedonism. Canada is following as swiftly as she can, although the social conservative movement has been putting up valiant resistance. The Christian Britain that produced so much of what we hold dear in Western Civilization is nearly dead. In the United States, a civil war is being waged—and the winner is by no means predictable.

One of my closest friends is a history buff of British heritage, and when we happen to be in the same city we often discuss the decline and collapse of the cultures that still to a large degree define us and our families while waxing nostalgic about the past glories of these once-great nations. Because when we talk about the Netherlands and England now, the heritage we admire and treasure to a large extent no longer exists. (It always reminds me of Chesterton, who noted that tradition is so powerful that “later generations will dream of what they have never seen.”) That is why Anthony Esolen’s hope for an American miracle seems even more essential: Because perhaps there is still a chance for the United States to preserve something of what made her great in the first place.

It reminds me of a story Ronald Reagan once told of chatting with a man who found his nation under threat from Communism. Reagan expressed his sympathy and concern, and the man retorted by noting that he actually felt sorry for Reagan. Surprised, Reagan asked him why. Because when America falls, the man replied, there will be nowhere left to go.

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For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.

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