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A Writer's Flaw-Abiding Love of Country

Society's imperfections inspire Roger Rosenblatt's affection, but so does the national desire for improvement.

June 19, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Originally, essayist and author Roger Rosenblatt thought of nine reasons to love America.

The native New Yorker's sudden and urgent need to express a deep affection and devotion to country arose, as it did for many, after the Sept. 11 attacks. The desire perhaps was made more acute for Rosenblatt, who came of age during the tumultuous Vietnam War era, when the patriotism of liberals like himself was continually challenged.

This time it wasn't a conservative questioning his love of country, but his book editor. Nine reasons weren't enough to sell books, Rosenblatt recalled Monday night while speaking in an author series sponsored by the nonprofit group Writers Bloc.

So the former Harvard writing professor came up with 21 more reasons, resulting in "Where We Stand: 30 Reasons for Loving Our Country" (Harcourt, 2002). But in his hourlong talk at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, it was clear that Rosenblatt could have easily come up with 300 or 3,000 more reasons to love his country.

Rosenblatt's patriotism is not of the blindly flag-waving variety. It's nuanced, complex and, oddly enough, funny.

He loves America for its flaws and for its evolved desire to constantly improve itself. He loves America for its free speech, its tolerance of differences, and for the "darndest things" its leaders say.

To much laughter, Rosenblatt recounted the following statements from former heads of state:

* Richard Nixon, standing at the Great Wall of China: "You'll have to admit this is a great wall."

* Gerald Ford: "I always watch the Detroit Tigers on the radio when I can."

* The elder George Bush, on his 1988 reelection bid: "The undecideds could go either way."

But not every president contributed, Rosenblatt added. "The great disappointment about Clinton was that while he behaved peculiarly," said Rosenblatt, "he rarely said anything peculiar."

As if Clinton weren't enough to remind us, Rosenblatt went on to counter the myth that America somehow lost its innocence or a goodly portion of it on Sept. 11. That observation is only true if you define innocence as "being taken by surprise by an aerial attack."

In his essay "We're Not That Innocent" (yes, he gives a nod to the Britney Spears song), Rosenblatt said there's never been much innocent about America. Slaughter of natives, slavery, exploitation of workers, and the list goes on and on. What he loves about America is its recognition of these wrongs and its desire to correct the mistakes.

He underlined the point by quoting theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "Our capacity for justice makes democracy possible, and our capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary."

The night was billed as a talk between Rosenblatt and Norman Lear, the famous television producer who gave us "All in the Family" and "Sanford and Son." But for reasons not entirely clear, the successful give-and-take formula between authors was abandoned.

Instead, Lear gave a brief introduction for Rosenblatt and left the stage. Only after Rosenblatt finished his presentation did Lear return. And then the television producer and political activist proved himself as comically cranky, albeit in a liberal way, as his Archie Bunker.

The pair fielded questions from the audience, but Lear, usually in tongue-in-cheek manner, did most of the fielding.

When asked how the pair became friends, Lear was noncommittal, then mentioned that he and Rosenblatt "had been married for four months." When told by an earnest 20-something that members of her generation didn't seem to spend much time talking to each other, Lear suggested she get her contemporaries to smoke pot.

The speakers missed an opportunity to invigorate the discussion when they failed to take on a question from the audience about whether or not American actions might have provoked the September attacks. The "blowback" argument goes that America had it coming after decades of self-serving policies in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf region.

Lear quickly dismissed the point as irrational, while Rosenblatt gave no response.

A question about the post 9/11 flag-waving seemed to draw the most impassioned and noncomical response from Lear. Flags are symbols, he said, and as such have little intrinsic value. What has a great deal of value, he went on, were the principles on which the nation was founded. For those, the World War II veteran said, he would fight another war to defend. For those, he added for emphasis, he would fight in 19 more to preserve.

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