At the Republican Party convention in St Paul last week, John McCain formally accepted the party's nomination as candidate for President. Unfortunately, I missed his speech, but I've heard plenty of comment about it. He was, I've heard, especially eloquent when he spoke about his time as a POW in Vietnam.
It was an experience that shaped him and has shaped his candidacy. In particular, he said that night, "I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in somebody else's."
I can imagine the applause that nearly poetic line got, that night in St Paul. I can imagine that a soldier certainly would think loving thoughts about his country when another country has him under lock and key. No argument there with John McCain.
But it did make me think of a day last February, when Michelle Obama spoke to an audience just a few hundred miles away, in Milwaukee. That was another speech I missed, but I've heard plenty of comment about it too. In particular, there was plenty of comment about this that she said that night, referring to her husband's campaign for the Presidency: "For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."
Oh yes there was plenty of comment. For example, this report says she took "heat" for that line. It quotes two different "conservative outlets" that contributed to that heat. It says that Cindy McCain, John's wife, told an audience: "I don’t know if you heard those words earlier ... but I am very proud of my country." Everyone's favourite radio host, Rush Limbaugh, called Michelle Obama's comment "outrageous" and "unhinged", and wondered why she hadn't felt proud at various times before that Milwaukee moment.
Heat is to be expected, of course. Yet I'm left wondering, what is the difference between John McCain's observation as a POW and Michelle Obama's observation in Milwaukee? Can you explain that to me?
Why did McCain get no "heat" for what he said; why didn't Rush ask him why he (McCain) wasn't in love with his country at various times before Vietnam?
Not that I'm interested in an answer. Yet there's a reason I wonder. This goes to the heart of that peculiarly vapid flavour of patriotism, the "love your country or leave it" kind. Why the heart? Because the guys who shout it loudest are the guys whose own rhetoric displays nothing short of a profound distaste for their own countries. I've seen it in India, not least in the angry, bitter rhetoric of any number of blogs of a certain bent; I've seen it in the USA.
Case in point, look at Rush's own language. He rails against "liberals" and their "destructive liberal agenda", the "drive-by media", "feminazis", "people taking this country for granted", how Michelle Obama's comment will "resonate with a lot of people" ... Master Limbaugh, clearly, finds a lot of people and things and ideas about his country that leave him angry.
In what sense, then does he "love" his country?
And yet, that's a completely irrelevant question. George McGovern once said: "The highest patriotism is ... a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher standard." I will admit that, twisted and perverse as I think Rush's rhetoric is, he is trying to call his country to a standard he aspires to.
I believe the call McGovern means is what John McCain was alluding to in his speech.
I believe Michelle Obama was doing the same.