On America’s Culture War And Misguided Sense Of “Patriotism”
Whose brand of patriotism will win the culture war — Tomi Lahren’s #FinalThoughts, or Megan Rapinoe’s #VictoryPose?
This girl. Again. Seems she’s always inserting herself into the cultural issues of the day that in no way whatsoever affect her life. Sure, she’s allowed to have opinions and beliefs, as well as the freedom to express them. I’ll give her that — it’s an American right which I firmly defend. But that doesn’t mean she gets to escape criticism. Just like you, and me, and everyone else who writes or speaks in public forum.
Tomi Lahren is one of the many meal ticket darlings of Fox, the strident, ultra conservative host of “Fox Nation.” Minus a couple of issues where she deviates from trumpism tenets (like on abortion), she’s the same type of political pundit who tries to speak with authority on issues she doesn’t personally experience. She peddles toxic, pot-stirring vitriol and “alternative facts” as “truth,” and shames others for having virtues like empathy, while thinking she’s just being “provocative.”
Yet, in a recent interview for Salon, Lahren sounds remarkably sensible speaking about “civility.” She insists that society should return to a place where discourse is civil and we actually listen to one another rather than insult, and she’d welcome conversations that separate people from their politics.
I’d like that, too.
The problem is, since the 2016 election, our country has shifted to a place where politics somehow became intertwined and even synonomous with one’s internal moral compass.
We’re at a divide in history — a standstill — where folks can’t even objectively agree on what a fact is. We certainly aren’t ready to separate people from their politics. Especially when we’re unable to collectively decide which behaviors in society should be tolerated or not (though that conversation is long overdue).
Personally, I don’t believe trump’s brand of ‘change’ has any place in America — a supposed democracy — because it consists of inviting and welcoming the act of punching down, i.e., vicious, puerile bullying that’s done by a person of power, directed at the people they have power over.
I remember a time not so long ago when all Americans, regardless of political party, found common ground on the notion that democracies should never embrace vile, despotic behavior from their leaders. But, here we are. And people like Tomi Lahren have been invigorated and buoyed up by this deceptive power.
Recently, Lahren used her Twitter platform (with a reach of over a million followers) to go up against American soccer star and current Women’s World Cup headliner Megan Rapinoe. Incidentally, Rapinoe was also just criticized on Twitter by trump. Social media is abuzz with this whole exchange, and a number of hilarious memes have spawned from Rapinoe’s sassy World Cup victory pose.
In short, when asked (months ago) whether she’d visit the White House or not should her team win the Women’s World Cup, Rapinoe answered with a resounding
“I’m not going to the fucking White House.”
I didn’t know anything about Rapinoe before this event (I know, I know; I’m late to the party, as usual), but a quick google search piqued my interest for a more thorough search, which seemed to reveal a kindred spirit — if only in my imagination.
The kid in me was excited to learn we share the same July 5th birthday.
Though, of course, I’m like, 11 years older, and more of a… let’s say, “theatre geek,” than sports aficionado — an insight quickly learned in 4th grade each time students were designated as team captains in P.E. and got to choose their own teams. I’d consistently find myself “last man standing,” alone on the field with nothing but an awkward feeling of “I don’t know what to do with my hands,” and the occasional, rolling tumbleweed. That is, until my inevitable “selection,” accompanied by audible sighs, disclosing my teammates’ dismay… ah, good times!
Aside from a juvenile birthday connection and few other similarities (she’s a fellow “SJW”), more importantly, I learned that Rapinoe is an outspoken, unafraid, smart, funny, down-to-earth, openly gay woman, living her best life. The world bore witness to her athletic prowess on the soccer field, and her casual yet charismatic way of speaking during the press conferences that followed.
And for those of us who didn’t know her before, we’re now also starting to understand the sheer gravity of Megan Rapinoe, of everything about her that goes beyond surface level musings.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention my deep appreciation for the answer she gave, on air, in response to the trump White house visit question. And the Rapinoe #VictoryPose memes across Twitter are just brilliant. (I wasted plenty of time making a few of my own.)
By the time trump learned of Rapinoe’s comment, plus the Fox News live broadcast from France, post-victory, where bar patrons could be seen and heard in the background clealy chanting, “Fuck trump!” over and over again, trump had visibly taken a blow to his fragile ego. And, in usual fashion, he responded by attacking Rapinoe on Twitter.
In a three-part thread, he tagged her account (incorrectly at first, causing a lot of grief for the wrong “@meganrapino” instead of “@mPinoe”), and when he finally managed to tweet the right person, buried within the debris of his usual slaphappy word salad, he had the gall to hint that Rapinoe was un-American, or unpatriotic (whichever you’d rather call it):
After Rapinoe led her team’s fierce World Cup victory, Tomi Lahren followed trump’s lead and took to Twitter. On July 9, Lahren tweeted this, in lockstep with the undercurrent of the trumpism brand:
So much is wrong with this. There are many directions we could take here, but today I’m confronting two points.
First, the obvious — Lahren’s callow attempts to discredit Rapinoe’s moral character. She confidently asserts Rapinoe is “not a hero” and that Rapinoe is a “virtue-signaling soccer player…” etc., Of course, this ridiculously suggests that a person is bound to inhabiting only a one-dimensional persona. Like Megan Rapinoe is a SOCCER PLAYER, THEREFORE, SHE CAN BE NOTHING ELSE.
Second, the perhaps less-obvious, but important issue of: what does patriotism in America even mean anymore?
1. On “virtue-signaling:” decomposing the stale, sophomoric slur of pseudo-intellectuals
Regardless of the phrase’s origin, the meaning of ‘virtue-signaling’ has been hijacked and reshaped by pseudo-intellectual conservatives who can’t possibly comprehend random acts of kindness, or, hell, just the notion of being nice for the sake of being nice, you know, without any expectation for accolade, or thought of, “what’s in it for me?”
A while back, I did some research on the term “virtue-signaling”. When properly used, the term virtue-signaling could be better exemplified by something like the universal offerings of “thoughts and prayers” that get shouted into the void following yet another mass shooting in America, but come hand-in-hand with absolutely no willingness to budge on reasonable gun control measures.
But, what people like Tomi Lahren mean when accusing someone of ‘virtue-signaling’ is that the person in question is making a statement (often, a “politically correct statement”) out of vanity, to seem morally superior, for the sake of self-aggrandizement, praise, and “likes,” but they don’t actually believe what they’re saying, or practice what they preach.
Thus, “virtue-signaling” is intended as a put-down (usually against liberals), that attempts to cast suspicion and doubt, and to make the accused look superficial and self-absorbed.
In turn, this tactic can end up putting the accused on the defense, and ultimately, completely derails or shuts down any further discussion. Which, unfortunately, makes it an effective manipulation tactic.
For someone like Tomi Lahren who’s promoting her new book, which gives a sort of roadmap for taking down “condescending elites who never pass up a chance to quash honest debate,” you’d think she’d see the irony, the hypocrisy in her accusations of others. But no.
What the Tomi Lahrens of the world fail to grasp is that there are people who genuinely practice what they preach, who sacrifice it all — the potential of losing everything — in order to do what’s noble and morally right, with no expectation of reward. They do it because they actually give a damn. Think of what we know of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Or Mahatma Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks.
But what’s even more troubling about this manipulation tactic is that shaming others for alleged virtue-signaling is a backhanded way to avoid discussing what we as a society should consider virtuous — i.e., good, moral, and ethical — in the first place. It’s also a way of stigmatizing empathy, which is a calling card of trumpism.
Such attempts to criminalize empathy are psychological projection, another calling card of trumpism. To contend that anyone who cares, advocates for, and fights for “the least of these” has some type of narcissistic syndrome is an absolute and complete failure of the human mind.
A facet that’s always been true (but has become increasingly more evident since the election of trump) is that horrible, fearful, angry people tend to excel at continuing to find ways to justify their own rejection of learning and growth, and their own refusal to change or strive to be better humans.
The ultimate irony is that the Tomi Lahrens of the world who accuse the caring among us of virtue-signaling are actually engaging in the thing they think they’re calling out and condemning: self-righteous posturing from a self-appointed standing of moral authority.
2. Decomposing “patriotism” in 2019 America — is it patriotism, nationalism, or jingoism?
To address the “when you have a giant USA on your back, you represent our country and all Americans” part of Lahren’s tweet, it bears pointing out:
Who else, if not the President of the United States, has a “giant USA” on their back? I’d argue that donald trump symbolically wears the most giant, most important brand of USA on his back (or rather, ill-fitted, piecemeal prom tuxedo), and to date, I’ad argue he has not even once done a good job of representing our country.
Over the course of three years, leaders and people of other nations have been mocking him at every turn and commiserating with the majority of Americans who detest him. Every time he visits — literally anywhere — he manages to mess up even the most basic of duties, ensuring our country’s standing as a laughingstock, an embarrassment. Or, he simply confirms the absolute worst in us by exaggerating the chauvinistic, juvenile teenager that our country technically is.
Foreign leaders pretend to like him, or they simply tolerate his presence, but they use him for their own good, and they skewer him (and us, by default) behind closed doors.
And he doesn’t exactly make it hard. From his unsecured, personal Twitter account, he positions himself vulnerable, daily — if not hourly — by openly revealing grievances that range from his milder pet peeves to the things that ignite his fury.
He unwittingly reveals his various delusions, deep insecurities, and neurotic preoccupations. He does this out loud, from an unsecured account, hosted on a public platform, for all the world to see. In turn he foolishly makes a treasure trove available — “the riches of Solomon” — for hostile foreign powers in seek of valuable insight they can use to further manipulate him and his team of enablers, and moreover, our country.
On the other side of trump and conservative figures like Tomi Lahren, there’s Megan Rapinoe, who, I’d argue, is very much representing our country all that it’s supposed to stand for. Virtues we’ve always esteemed, like bravery, freedom, strength, sportsmanship, and independence. We’re a country born of protest, and we find strength in our diversity, not our homogeneity.
Among the many hats she wears, Rapinoe is an advocate for LGBTQ rights (and equality in general), and has done philanthropic work for various organizations, including GLSEN. In 2016, she became the first prominent white athlete (of only a few total) to join Colin Kaepernick in the “take a knee” protests against racial inequality and police brutality during the national anthem at sports events.
I’d even argue that Megan Rapinoe is what patriotism is supposed to look like in living, breathing form.
But then again, what makes someone a “proud patriot?” What does American patriotism even mean anymore?
I’m sure most Americans think they know. That they’d recognize it when they see it. You know, standing for the pledge of allegiance at school, donning an American flag on the front porch, draped over the mailbox, or vinyled on the car; images of sparklers, fireflies, lemonade, and all the vintage nostalgic kitsch that comprises “Americana.”
Sure, these things represent us, in a way.
But trump has almost disgustingly comandeered America’s patriotic symbols for himself, including the flag, the national anthem, and the military (for which he received 5 deferements). He acts more like a nationalist than a patriot.
He veers into darker territory when he goes rogue on foreign policy and suggests that he alone can fix it, or when he attempts to silence (or at least discredit) the free press, or uses fear-mongering rhetoric that’s undeniably terrified of “outsiders.”
And for some unknown reason, he cozies up to hostile foreign dictators who torture, starve, and murder their own people.
Sadly, many Americans support this.
And I believe many of the Americans who support trump, like Tomi Lahren, have mistaken patriotism with jingoism — an extreme, fanatical, perverse form of an already misguided patriotism, on steroids.
Jingoism believes “we’re better than anyone else,” and it believes that sentiment to an obnoxious, braggadocious level.
That’s not patriotism. That’s the opposite of patriotism.
The act of patriotism requires, at a minimum, acknowledging all of America’s flaws, especially the inconvenient ones, and holding power to account until these flaws are fixed. Our founding fathers envisioned “a more perfect union.” Patriotism means doing the actual work required to achieve that more perfect union, not just filling the void with lip service.
Robert Reich does a phenomenal job defining patriotism in his YouTube series. He says:
“Patriotism isn’t about exclusion; it’s about inclusion. It involves taking on a fair share of the burdens of keeping America going… Patriotism is rooted in our common ideals… Americans are not a race. We’re not a creed. We’re a conviction that all people are created equal, that people should be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin, and that government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people…
I’d like to ask the Tomi Lahrens of the world a few questions:
We’ve heard you reference (and seem to strongly dislike) anyone who thinks they’re morally superior to others. Why haven’t you measured yourself by that same standard? What is it, exactly, that leads you to think that you’re morally superior, or maybe, that you’re more patriotic than Megan Rapinoe?
What makes you assume that you don’t come off as having a “chip on your shoulder” or “an attitude problem,” as you say she does? Why do you say, “you need to get over yourself” as if you don’t need to get over your own self?
What makes you think you hold a monopoly on “truth?”
What are you doing to unite your country?
How can you possibly think you are representing ALL of us, especially when you consistently shut down the legitimate grievances of minorities — whose experience you know nothing about, and likely, never will?
Unlike the flag and the national anthem, patriotism is not symbolic. It’s concrete. It’s tangible. Patriotism is an action. It often requires real work that may not, in any way, be fun, comfortable, or the popular thing to do.
Anyone can stand for the pledge and the national anthem. Anyone can hang a flag on their home, bedazzle their car with bumper stickers and MAGA merch, or take a t-shirt and tye dye it to red, white, and blue perfection. Anyone can drunk belt Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” during Sunday night karaoke at the local bar. That’s easy stuff.
Patriotism means having the courage to literally fight for your country, as in the military. But, it also means having the will and the desire to fight for the things your country is supposed to represent. It means getting in the fight from the comfort of your own community.
It means having the courage to hold power to account, to speak up, especially when we feel that entire communities (especially when they’re outside of our own) are not being represented by the symbolic values of the flag we salute.
America is in the midst of a war. It’s a culture war, about how we want to define our culture, and by default, how we want to define our country. It’s too late to return to some rose-tinted era that may only exist in the cobwebs of our minds. We need to decide what’s next. What do we want our national identity to be, going forwards?
To me, that identity looks a lot more like Megan Rapinoe than Tomi Lahren.
Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes a variety of social commentary. She’s a top writer in Culture and LGBTQ for Medium, editor of Gender From the Trenches, and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is the founder of S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center that serves trans youth and their parents. Connect with Martie on Twitter, Facebook, or follow her website & blog.