"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“I will fucking kill you if the opportunity presents itself you ungrateful motherfucker.”
I shook my head as I forwarded this message, tucked entirely into the subject line, to my department chair. Then I went on to the next one. The day before, I had published an essay about the problems of uncritically repeating the slogan “Support Our Troops.” Not everybody was happy with my argument.
When I arrived at my office the following morning, a voice mail waited: “I’m sure your son is a fucking faggot, just like you’re a fucking faggot.” (I am offering the caller enormous benefit of the doubt by correctly transcribing the contractions.)
By that point, the vitriolic messages were arriving in my inbox faster than I could read them. I forwarded the death threats to the police and some of the funnier bluster to friends and family. I feared less for my life than for the well-being of a society in the thrall of this nationalistic furor — or at least a society made to genuflect to an all-American image of the flag lest anybody arouse that furor.
I don’t genuflect. The first rule for any serious writer is to agitate the contentious and embrace the disreputable.
It didn’t take long for the tenor of the messages to change. Suddenly I went from being a troop-hating fag to a jihadist, awash in the new vocabulary of apocalyptic struggle — dhimmitude, swine, Taliban, anti-Semitism, Allah, terrorism, hijab, pedantry, oppressed women — informing the limitless Clash of Civilizations.
“Moohamed was a murdering pig.”
Apparently a bovine enthusiast, too, I thought as I clicked the message to make sure it contained only stupidity of the nonthreatening variety: “And so are you, all Muzzies are sub human dogs and should be put down like a diseased animal with Rabies. I only wish I lived in Virginia so i could hunt you down like the dog you are, I hope you die soon along with your family.”
And so it went the rest of the day. (If you’re wondering: No, one never becomes desensitized to racism.)
Just before slamming the lid of my laptop near midnight, I received a message on Facebook from a (white) high school friend I haven’t seen in 20 years: “Man, I really don’t think any of this would be happening if you were white.” Some folks from my hometown (not in fact in the Islamoland of Pamela Geller’s imagination) had banished me from the right to be called a native son. But I grew up the child of immigrants in the heart of Southern Appalachia: My family was never accepted fully enough for banishment to mean anything.
The alignment of narratives was clear. Patriotism and ethnonationalism had again converged. There is nothing in the American past we can evoke for nostalgic coziness. Patriotism and ethnonationalism have always interacted in the United States.
* * *
My old classmate identified the correlation between race and the limits of acceptable critique, but is he correct that whiteness would have protected me from rage? In the abstract, no. Sean Penn has faced more rage than I can ever hope to elicit. Michael Moore isn’t popular among uncompromising patriots, either. Nobody who conceptualizes patriotism or troop-worship as foolish will escape harsh feedback in today’s United States.
Yet in the concrete, my old classmate’s speculation is insightful. Whiteness cannot protect one from nationalistic wrath. White critics of patriotism and militarism may well be asked to leave the country. They may be ostracized for airing unpopular views. They may be called pussies and faggots. And they may be threatened with death. But their fundamental legitimacy as stewards of proper American-ness will rarely be questioned. It will instead be lamented as lapsed or forsaken. They will not field incessant questions about their religion (i.e., whether or not they are Muslim). They will not be told to return to nations that don’t exist.
In short, their dissidence will be conceptualized as individual failures, not as evidence of cultural deficiency.
My article about the trouble with the phrase “support the troops” suddenly had nothing to do with its own rhetorical anatomy. Instead, it became a referendum on the evils of Islam and the vileness of Arab culture.
Ethnonationalism conjoins feelings of nationalistic ardor with rigid standards of ethnic belonging. West Bank settlers practice a form of ethnonationalism, as do Holland’s Party for Freedom, Saudi Arabia’s royal family, and the English Defence League. Ethnonationalism doesn’t necessarily entail biological determinism (the notion that one’s biology ensures inborn characteristics), but it always enacts racialized criteria for its version of national identity. It often accommodates or incorporates homophobia and sexism. American ethnonationalism is no exception: the terms “bitch” and “faggot” so easily condemn those who eschew the demands of compulsory patriotism.
Ethnonationalism and patriotism aren’t always identical, but they are often interchangeable. Dominant notions of patriotism in today’s United States recycle the age-old assumption that the truest of all Americans, those who deserve the pleasure of abuse without accusations of atavistic disloyalty, are Christian, male, heterosexual and white.
* * *
Scandinavians aren’t fully white. The Irish aren’t at all white. Neither are Italians. Jews are genetically nonwhite. Ukrainians are but dark-hearted impostors. Greeks and Spaniards might as well be black.
At some point in American history, each of these statements was widely considered to be true. Somewhere along the way, each statement gave way to different truisms, depending on the social and political mood of the nation. Each community, in short, became at least white enough to escape the peripheries now inhabited by Latino/as, Arabs, Asians and Muslims. (Blacks and Natives inhabit even more complex and insidious peripheries.)
American national identity has never been static, but its one constant is assimilation not into citizenship but into whiteness. The noun “American” is technically neutral, but its connotations reinforce whiteness as the default value of belonging. To mollify our denial, we piously hang flags in the gentrified precincts of our ethnonational geography.
Patriotism is the natural culmination of this phenomenon. To express loyalty to a national ideal, one must accept the assumptions that provide the ideal its power. When those assumptions demand conformity to the rules of white normativity, the ideal constantly recirculates the racism endemic to narratives of American exceptionalism.
Are all patriotic folks therefore racist? No. In fact, it is possible to be both patriotic and anti-racist. It is important to distinguish between racism as an ethic, attitude or philosophy and racism as a discourse transmitted through the broadcast of unexamined mythologies. Transmitting those discourses may not bespeak personal acceptance of racism, but it does bolster the institutions through which racism noiselessly affects the social order. Such is the tenacity of racism; it perpetuates itself even in the absence of direct endorsement.
Sometimes, however, an event unleashes the racism hidden in the structures of patriotism. It happens, for instance, when an Arab is (mistakenly) seen to be criticizing “the troops,” the most sacred trope of American pride.
* * *
I am not a fan of Barack Obama. Bank bailouts, kill lists, counterrevolutionary fervor, widespread torture — each policy is, in my opinion, unforgivable. But Barack Obama and I share something in common. We both experience the relentless wrath of Islamophobia without actually being Muslim.
We are not alone. Islamophobes target those they wish to expunge from the national identity they craft by maintaining the romance of a purer Americana. One need only be plausibly Muslim to become a target.
Obama has inspired a resurgence of ethnonationalism. No modern politician’s ethnicity and religion have been so maligned, so mistrusted, as those of Obama, the heretical interloper, the untrue American. No birth certificate can overcome the aberrations of his funny name and dark complexion. No level of diplomacy and conciliation can appease the anxiety of the hyperpatriots who bestow on Obama a particular symbolism and then decry the decline of the nation as a result of his symbolic incivility.
Rooting out evidence of people’s foreignness has become such a common way to argue that it overwhelms any critical analysis proffered by those perceived to be Muslim (by virtue of brown skin, an unusual name, or distasteful headgear). Purveyors of this brand of ethnonationalism are rarely called unpatriotic because they govern the territories of normative American-ness. Patriotism is their domain, hostage to their definitional preferences.
In turn, patriotism is often a veiled lament at the changing demographics of the United States. There is no space in the real America for an alien president with socialist pathologies, immigrant hordes who undermine a timeless way of life, or an uppity jihadist who denounces the nation’s favorite platitude. By incessantly identifying and policing the limits of acceptable thought, ethnonationalists conjoin patriotic demands with implicit racial and sexual reproach (which periodically becomes explicit). This relentless shaming of dissidence benefits precisely two demographics: politicians and their wealthy clientele.
We can spend energy formulating a more inclusive and thoughtful patriotism, but ultimately it wouldn’t be energy well spent. Patriotism can only benefit all citizens if the state and its institutions are inclusive of the entire populace. Until that happens, and it has never happened in any epoch of American history, patriotism will have a stronger relationship with ethnonationalism than with movements for equality.
In the meantime, we are stuck with this type of geopolitical analysis, distilled from the most patriotic of the pundits to the believing viewers and finally into the inboxes of the infidels: “Do not sit and mock this great country in defense of the violence-riddled, sexual predatorial, Jihadist nations of Africa and Middle East, that you yearned to get away from.”
Translation: As long as the far right remains in charge of defining patriotism and the liberal left continues reinforcing those definitions through weak-kneed appeals to tolerance, broader conversations about the state of our nation will be lazy, irrational and violent — in other words, everything the current brand of patriotism asks us to be.
Steven Salaita is an associate professor of English. He tweets at @stevesalaita.More Steven Salaita.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)