“But ye [are] a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” –1 Peter 2:9
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…” –Matthew 22:21
I took a trip down to Charlottesville a few weeks ago to spend time with friends on the picturesque grounds of the University of Virginia. Though a Yale man, I tend to find myself easily at home in a world historically referred to as the “Harvard of the South.” (We will ignore any wisecracks from Duke, Vanderbilt, or Chapel Hill affiliates in the audience.) In an academic sense, Wahoos are not terribly dissimilar from Yalies or peers at other top schools in places like the People’s Republic of Unhappy Hours, Michael Bloomberg’s Animal Urban Farm, or that turnpike Chris Christie governs (I’m told there’s a Garden State around there somewhere). Politically, there are plenty of liberals, progressives, and Democrats, as can be found in abundance at most schools, even in places like South Carolina.
Culturally, though, something is a bit different in Charlottesville. It’s often hard to put a finger on exactly, but you know you’re not in New Haven, Cambridge, or the Big Apple of Billionaire Paternalism for reasons distinct from questions of size or walkability. Yes, you’re more likely to hear country music, but the town is surrounded by the rural South. Yes, the campus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but much of that dignity proves elusive amid the ebb and flow of inebriated masses. Yes, people drive everywhere, but so do most Americans living outside a few select megacities in the Frost Belt or D.C. So what, you might wonder, are we talking about?
It comes down to little things, really.
I remember going to weekly meetings, years ago, for an avowedly conservative organization at Yale. Among other things, this organization made a point of prominently featuring the American and British flags, while waxing passionate about the virtues of Western civilization and its literary canon. Yet for all that admirable passion, I could not help but notice that they placed the American flag on the viewer’s right. The group’s leaders did not grasp the problem.
At Virginia, I have seen flags in windows, on walls, atop polls, and every way else imaginable. Never once have I seen a single one anywhere in violation of U.S. code. I’m sure such a sin must exist somewhere down there, but the hypothetical invalid would be drowned out by a student body that displays a near preternatural understanding of proper flag etiquette.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed a bar full of people break out into patriotic songs at the end of a Friday night out. I sought after a reason from the Wahoo compatriots of my friend Edward, and they responded, with patronizing grins, “This is America.” It reminded me of that time I was driving through the richly forested hills of Prince William County with my friend Marcus from Connecticut, and the national anthem halted programming on the radio at high noon. Bemused, Marcus had inquired of me the occasion for such an event. Back then, I shrugged off the Nutmegger’s question, as Edward and the Virginians later would mine, with a simple reply. “This is America.” What more reason do we ever need for such things?
It is stories like these that come to mind when I reflect on the disturbing fact that the IRS actively abused its power to target conservative groups with “Patriot” in their names or constitutionalism as their purpose or that simply formed to make “America a better place to live.” However one feels about the Tea Party or conservative activists, there is indeed something culturally sick about the notion that identifying with and promoting the Constitution or embracing the will to patriotism reliably demarcates political opposition. Leaving aside the matter of political ethics, what does it say about us when certain elements reflexively impugn the legitimacy of wide swaths of people simply because they seem to love America too much?
Of course, those who were skeptical of Barack Obama from the beginning might remember his infamous “clinging to their guns and religion” remarks and draw a line through the Department of Homeland Security adumbrating peril in “Rightwing Extremism” to the administration’s early hostility to critical reporting from Fox News and reach a natural conclusion that a tone hostile to conservatism was set in a top-down rejection of Americana and its general unsuitability for the ideas and values of Northeastern coffee shops.
Hardly anybody would struggle to imagine Presidents Reagan or Bush, Congressmen Ryan or Cantor, or a generic movement conservative being visibly moved by the flutter of a flag or the sight of a servicemember in uniform. How naturally, one must ask, does such an image come of President Obama or Nancy Pelosi or any other prominent progressives? Today, it would strike many people as odd or disingenuous were avowed liberals like Terry McAuliffe to swell up at the mere thought of American greatness, but is anyone truly surprised—favorably or pejoratively—that a Virginia Republican would pour out a libation of tears in reflecting on America’s ongoing promise to defend freedom? To be sure, the image is not a wholly partisan one—Democrats Joe Manchin, Zell Miller, or Frances Underwood certainly fit the type—but there seems a widening rift of that nature.
There are many questions of politics, law, and general malfeasance to ponder in wake of all these scandals that may or may not derail what is left of the president’s second-term agenda. But when the media storms settle, cultural divides and questions of discordant perspectives will remain. Why is it that we have become an America where one side—or region or disposition—of politics is known to see zealous love of country as a sacred virtue, and the other is expected to scoff at and distrust what it sees as an incubator of rabid violence?
The IRS scandal merely confirms this narrative of paranoid division. Whatever staying power the story has will derive largely from the fact that the chasm has now been yawning at us for years. And it has finally found a voice.