A Brief History of Clumsy American Patriotism
America is a land where anything is possible. A place where the viewpoint of the most ignorant dumbshit is as important as the QAnon scholar whose teeth jar told him where Hillary's liver clone is being harvested. But American liberty is complicated. We get to murder you if you fit a suspect's description, but we can't do shit about it if you want to spread your unvaccinated measles all over your preschool. We think the poor deserve every misery they suffer, but the unfuckable deserve loose hot girls with no standards.
We can't ever agree on anything because half of you -- and you absolutely don't know which half you're in -- grew up learning only how to disagree. We're not "stupid" so much as we're "unable to ever know or admit when something isn't smart."
Speaking of not smart, it would take a real idiot to try to deconstruct 40 years of American spirit using only ten-ish examples from pop culture. But I'm so goddamn American that I lack the self-awareness to know when I'm talking about me, and that's the first thing you need to know: We're incoherent, contradictory, and frustrating, and we have been this way ever since a guy who owned 600 people helped start the country by writing "all Men are created equal."
So in the great tradition of that clear and consistent vision, let's look at some of the clumsiest attempts at patriotism from America's last four decades.
The '80s: "America Is The Fucking Toughest! And Hardest!"
In the 1980s, the best American you could hope to be was an unkillable death machine. We had the most tanks, the veiniest penises, and we were leading all other countries in atomic city murders by two. But we didn't really need bombs, since if you dropped a single one of us anywhere (Little China, the planet Mongo, the 25th century), the entire place was fucked. If you run an evil empire at any point in time or space, your reign is over an hour after the '80s American crash-lands in your cyber arena and shouts, "W-where am I? Why isn't this music rock 'n' roll!?"
In 1984, Red Dawn showed Russia what would happen if they ever invaded our great country. It wasn't a movie about our brave people maintaining their dignity during a military occupation. It was about a small group of high school kids disappearing into the woods to launch an unstoppable guerrilla campaign against the Soviets. It was a warning: If you come into America, our children will become the night and swim in your blood.
It seems like standard anti-Soviet propaganda, and fed into the fantasy that you could kill an entire army by shooting a couple guys, running behind some trees, and repeating as necessary. But if you go back and pay attention to the hand-wavy setup for Red Dawn, it's not really a movie about how tough we are. It's a movie about how everyone hates us, and the feeling is mutual.
The Russians launch their attack through Mexico, and it's such a surprise that when a bunch of high-schoolers in Colorado see paratroopers drop on their lawn, they're like "Fucking what?" and not "Oh no, the Russian soldiers we were warned about." This means Mexico let an army hang out and prepare an invasion, and they forgot to call us? And did Canada do the same thing? Because the movie explains how Russia sends "60 divisions, three whole army groups" to Alaska to cut the oil pipeline and march down to meet with the rest of the Soviets in Kansas.
You know what we do to our own people who mess with our fuel pipelines? We attack them with dogs and pepper spray, and desecrate the sacred graves of their ancestors. If a bunch of Russians were screwing around with our oil, we would have dropped so many bombs there would be a new lake in Inukchuck made entirely out of liquid human, and local artisans would season it into breakfast sausage. Even assuming they made it out of Alaska, the movie suggests that something like a million men walked through British Columbia without arousing suspicion? Canada wouldn't let us fly a couple combat missions into their airspace?
The movie goes out of its way to say our only allies are the British and the Chinese, and that's weird. To make sense of Red Dawn's plot, that means every other country on the planet happily betrayed us. India, Australia, France, Japan ... we had hundreds of military bases in those places even in the '80s, filled with bored soldiers dying for an excuse to try out the rocket launchers. And yet, at incredible risk to the lives of everyone on Earth, they all said, "Oh wow, America, how'd those Russians get in there? Ha ha ha, maybe let your high-schoolers take care of it. Faaaatties!"
The message of Red Dawn is not "Beware of sleeping giants." It's "Beware of telling everyone how big your dick is, because even if it turns out to be true, everyone hates you for always slapping it on the table." And speaking of things you were allowed to do on a date in the '80s, let's talk about Rocky IV.
On paper, it was about defeating communism with the power of the American spirit, but I'm making it sound too subtle. They set up the story by having a boxer walk to the ring to "Livin' in America" and get punched to death while dressed as an American flag by an evil Russian. The only storytelling that's ever been more efficient than that is a training montage, which the entire rest of the film is. If Willy Wonka was trying to invent a gum that exploded a movie into your brain, all of his slaves would stop singing to say, "They did that, and it's called Rocky IV."
But there's something backwards and insane about Rocky IV. It's not how Rocky kicks the socialism out of a country ass-first -- that's how you're supposed to do it. It's how the film becomes a clash of ideals, and the American defeats the Russian by ... out-harding him? That's, like, exactly what America's coach would tell it not to try against Russia. Americans are capitalists. That means our athletes are great because competition honed them that way, the same way the the free market honed their orthotic cross-trainers and moisture-wicking underwear. Russian athletes are great because the weak are forgotten in their potato beds, while the strong abide frigid winters too cowardly to kill them.
Rocky IV understands the strengths and weaknesses of America and Russia about as well as an abandoned Mexican child understands the dangers of asking a CBP officer for water. The Russians fought off the Nazis by grinding 13 million partially armed men into their tank treads while also throwing together the greatest war machine in history as half their besieged country starved. Americans will turn a single case of Ebola into a ten-month panic attack. In America, three of our nine Christmas weeks are set aside for us to argue if individual objects are Christmasy enough. Do you know how Russians react when you offer them a coffee cup merely reading "Happy Holidays?" They pull out a human pelvic bone and say, "This is all the wolves left of my son. He was a cabbage ransomer."
Related: 15 Ways the ‘80s Changed Music
The '90s: "Come On, Pussies! Nobody Wants A Piece Of This America!?"
America was having a tough time getting motivated in the '90s. The Soviet Union was gone, and if we weren't the mortal enemies of an evil communist empire, who even were we? We'd spent a decade building bombs and telling ourselves how smart and heroic we were for it. And I grew up country enough to know that when you're holding a bag of awesome explosives, you start thinking real hard about what might need blowin' up. The best America could come up with was Iraq, and with barely any credible reason why, everyone was immediately and unanimously on board with the idea of blowing it the fuck away. Topps put out a set of trading cards before the Basrah Fire Department could put out the local corpse fires.
We were told by our president and the media how Desert Storm would be a glorious war against a dangerous military force, but we obliterated them in four days. We had our finest strategic minds plotting out tank battalion maneuvers while Apache helicopters and cruise missiles destroyed whatever they wanted and lots more they didn't. Meanwhile, confused and hungry Iraqi soldiers were running up to CNN crews to see if they knew where they were supposed to surrender. It was Olympic Dream Team levels of bully domination, only with tomahawk missiles humiliating our enemies instead of Charles Barkley -- both of which lost $1.3 million every time they left home.
This was six years after Red Dawn portrayed America as a fair opponent for Cuba, and here we were rolling over the "world's fourth-largest standing army" on their home turf. It was like America had been training for the heavyweight championship of the world, and the challenger was suddenly replaced by a three-legged cat, and we never considered changing the game plan. It's telling how all the superheroes invented in the '90s were sweet-ass swarms of weapons and none of us remember the poor underpowered villains they fought. Every cover for every issue was just the heroes posing awesomely by themselves, because that's what America was like at the time, a cyber death soldier with no true nemesis.
We did what we could to make a thing out of killer bees or Y2K, and tried to work ourselves up over the idea of an evil Japanese empire secretly buying the country out from under us. For instance, Michael Crichton put out a book called Rising Sun in 1992, about a murder mystery set in that exact paranoid delusion. But it turned out manufacturing crappier VCRs than Japan would not be the end of America. We came to the conclusion that nothing on Earth really had a shot against us, so we started focusing our hysterical need to kill a worthy enemy on outer space.
In 1996 we got Independence Day, a movie in which the American president declares the Fourth of July to be a global holiday and our drunkest, hillbilliest conspiracy theorist saves the day by crashing into the invaders in a fit of impotent rage. ID4 isn't simply American; it's flyover state "real" American.
Speaking of sarcasm, the '90s also gave us Starship Troopers, a movie set in Brazil, or one of the 3 Mexican countries or wherever, but starring sexy Americans playing American football and making fun of American militarism. It seemed clear that America's only true challenge could come from the stars. But that idea was fucking ludicrous, either on accident or on purpose.
We flailed around like that all decade until we lost our minds completely. Some maniacs made a movie wherein the goddamn president of the United States punches terrorists off Air Force One, and it was received with a resounding "Not that ridiculous." We went into the year 2000 watching Mel Gibson in The Patriot go down on the spirit of America in a movie where he was pretty nice to his slaves before he dropped his gun to pick up an American flag and beat the shit out of the British with it.
Our heads were up our own asses, and if 9/11 hadn't come along, we would have had to engineer a war with China or spawn some kind of Godzilla just to find a place to put our bullets and righteous power. As a nation, we were a bonered man on the edge of the dance floor at 1:59 a.m. -- desperate, unreflective, and ready to talk ourselves into anything.
The '00s: "We Are A Somber People! Of Quiet, Respectful Contemplation!"
If you haven't figured it out by now, each person's idea of patriotism has always been wildly different, and seems hysterical, naive, or fascist to everyone else. But then 9/11 happened and all of those conflicting ideals got wadded into one giant, uncriticizable love of America. Nobody knew how to deal with it, except to find out where the attackers were from and unleash the full power of our rage on their country, or at least one nearby. So we went back to war with Iraq and made more playing cards about it.
Nobody really believed the excuses given by the famously dishonest war criminals sending our soldiers to Iraq again, but it didn't take a lot of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves it was, you know, something to do with 9/11. Because at the time, we were willing to accept any tribute to the Twin Towers, no matter how dumb or klutzy, with unquestioning earnestness. Let me show you what I mean with something you'll probably think I'm making up. This is how The Amazing Spider-Man handled 9/11:
Most comics avoid real-world events, since once you plant Spider-Man in our Universe with specific presidents and tragedies, he suddenly becomes 70 years old. But J. Michael Straczynski made an exception so that Dr. Doom, Kingpin, Dr. Octopus, and Magneto could stand at Ground Zero and quietly reflect. This was clearly ridiculous and embarrassing, but it was met with no ridicule at the time. I'd like to meet it with a little now, though. You can skip ahead if you're not a nerd.
Magneto thinks humans are an obsolete, inferior species. He would see this like an ant farm getting knocked over. Kingpin was probably there to see which police officers died so he'd know which kidnapped children he could stop feeding. And Dr. Octopus is ignoring rescue workers as they dig for survivors while his robot arms are still set to "Party Mode." But Doom's reaction is the weirdest. In his very second appearance in Marvel comics, this asshole used Manhattan as a launching pad to shoot the Fantastic Four's skyscraper into space. He fucking loves blowing up New York landmarks. He's killed the entire universe a couple times. And here he is crying in the middle of the street over a bunch of people he could literally bring back to life with a time machine or by warping to the actual Satan and demanding he return their souls. My point is, even with all the limitless power of make-believe, we had absolutely no idea how to deal with 9/11.
Some people went the exact opposite direction from grief. There was a trend starting September 12, 2001 of grifters publishing books about America being terrific. Magneto and Dr. Octopus might have been smelling the smoldering remains of heroes when the towers fell, but authors Lisa Birnbach, Ann Hodgman, and Patricia Marx were smelling opportunity. They put out 1,003 Great Things About America, which is nothing more than a long list of things three mediocre women with limited imaginations thought of. Let's take a look at how these patriotic ladies honored the victims.
This is a great example of how these books are written. It's a type of cute so unexpectedly witless that it's only useful to sniff out disguised robots. It seems impossible for a human, much less three humans, to ever enjoy or decide to write down ideas so empty. These soft-skulled monsters are trying to share their love of America, but they write with all the joy and imagination of a veal cow's suicide note. They don't even deserve a joke. My reaction to this bullshit is cold pad Thai, maybe fake a pregnancy, ALF.
This is truly the work of thoughtful, motivated authors helping a nation heal. This is definitely not three of the worst people you'll ever meet trying to disguise their insecurities as personality. Each of these 1,003 great American things is nothing more than a fleeting thought from a very specific kind of awful white woman. "Designer purse shopping. Brunch with my gays. Stealing an idea for a book to exploit a national tragedy. (Shh!) Getting a valet fired. Forgetting your husband's birthday. Sad blowjobs as an obligation. Asking Jeeves which poisons are tasteless. Using the word 'ALF' alone as a punchline."
How can these ladies say we're lacking history when they drop that bomb of a prune fact on the same page? It goes to show how diverse our great country is. For example, it's the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., but also of three vapid dingbats who thought copying Snapple caps made sense for their inspirational book about American exceptionalism.
If I'm understanding you correctly, ladies, you think one of the things that makes our nation "great" is how NBA stars fuck around on their wives, and their freakish sizes have led to several real estate speculators owning vacation homes with vaulted ceilings. You empty, rat-souled harpies. You're only a third through your book, and your chardonnay-crippled synapses are already scraping the edges of your brains for the last shred of an idea. Please understand this is not comedic hyperbole and I am very serious when I say that more than zero people read this book and thought, "Maybe the terrorists were right."
People died, you cows. They were murdered, and you tried to sell a list of random words for $9.95 to a grieving natio- oh my god, wait, I remember home perms! Mother-in-laws would be like, "Could this BE any more curly? Bad hair day? Um, try bad hair LIFE!" Ha ha ha! Maybe I was too hard on you, ladies. I guess America is kind of great.
The '10s: "Everything's Lame! We're The Worst And We Deserve This!"
By the time the 2010s came along, the lies we had been telling ourselves for decades were being debunked too easily and too often. Every scrap of information turned into a bitter battle between cynics and cultists, and patriotism became a thing madmen screamed about after a black athlete came out against evil. Tributes that would have been tear-jerking ten years ago were now instant punchlines. Remember when Spaghetti-Os remembered the lives lost at Pearl Harbor by tweeting out a smiling pasta monster holding a flag?
In 2003, our nation's leaders would have seen that and said, "Touching words from a touchstone of American flavor. Now ... Beefaroni has six hours to release a statement, or we will have to assume it stands with our enemies." In 2013, it was so embarrassing that they deleted it the next morning, which means Spaghetti-Os actually un-honored the men and women who died at Pearl Harbor and it was less offensive than the time they honored them.
It's like this now every time anyone tries to invoke the American Spirit to sell something. Remember a few years ago, when Budweiser changed its name to "America?" Twenty years ago we would have cried Dr. Doom tears at such an honor, but in 2016, we were way too jaded. We were all, "um, shouldn't that technically be 'Belgium'? #FixedThatForYou and also maybe don't bounce name ideas off beer customers too stupid and drunk to avoid marketing surveys? #YouHadOneJob." What I'm trying to say is American sincerity is dead. We euthanized it the moment two towers of Coke Zero remembered 9/11.
America is constantly changing, and will hopefully have time to try out a few more fun personalities before we all roast alive. And speaking of roasting, Hulk Hogan and his family are all walking around with the flesh of indoor/outdoor basketballs. Brooke Hogan is 12 years younger than me, and she looks like I could be drinking buddies with her grandkids. She lost her skin in a bet with a magic patio chair, and I'm now realizing I should explain why I brought this up. I brought it up because Hulk Hogan, at any point in his history, was and is the most American thing there is. In the '80s, his wrestling theme song was literally the words "I am a Real American," and he proudly hid his baldness under red, white, and blue handkerchiefs. In a time when all we cared about was destroying our enemies, he dropped his taint and balls onto their necks. And as America changed, the Hulkster's legacy changed with it into a mockery of our country so elegant we will never see its like again.
The Hulkster told children about the power of hard work and healthy living, but his own body was filled with so much cocaine and horse steroid that his waste had to be buried in concrete to drown out its inhuman screaming. He fought in staged battles against opponents who never had a chance, which means even in the pretense of pro wrestling, there was this weird second layer of deception. It's like an allegory for every single American military conflict, written by an author who doesn't care if he's being too obvious.
Hulkster went on to produce an album with his mortal enemy Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart in an era where we were still pretending pro wrestling was real. There's a rap about stalking bikini girls in a pack of horny men, and a song where he serenades a dead cancer boy with the promise of tagging up with him in Heaven after he also dies. And on the album, the only thing separating these two wildly different tracks is a song about giving yourself sexually to the Hulkster, not performed by but to Hulk Hogan. It's so genuine, so crazy, and so knowingly full of shit at the same time, and I honestly don't know if he, or we as Hulkamaniacs, could ever tell those three things apart. It was as American as fighting drug runners on a speedboat -- which is something Hulkster was filming a show about at the time.
Like our great nation, Hulk Hogan championed moral values while hilariously and intentionally failing to live up to them. His most common advice was to say your prayers and take your vitamins, which turned out to be more like comforting superstitions than profound ideals. Obviously, none of us should have expected Terry Bollea to live up to the virtuous standards of Hulk Hogan, but morally speaking, it's hard to blow it more than saying the hard-R N-word on a sex tape you made with your friend's wife. The Hulkster pounded herpes and horse DNA into a woman married to a man named Bubba the Love Sponge, and his pillow talk was explaining to her he was racist, like, in those exact words.
It was a magnificent collision of the worst things humans can do. But you might be thinking, "None of that's necessarily American." You're right, but the fact that he sued Gawker for $100 million for telling people about it is. And the fact that a billionaire was secretly backing the lawsuit as a way to steer the government and control the press made it record-breaking levels of American. The world will boil in a fishless soup before anyone will ever satirize a country with their very existence as perfectly as the Hulkster has. If our monument builders weren't cowards, they would build a giant Hulk Hogan behind the Statue of Liberty, and he would be using her robe to wipe the extramarital sex off his racist dick.
I love this confused, drunk nation as much as Lisa Birnbach, Ann Hodgman, and Patricia Marx, and I think it deserves this page from their fantastic book, 1003 Great Things About America, in its entirety without commentary.
Seanbaby is a San Francisco-based humorist who also thinks, "Yeah, if Walt Disney really did freeze his own corpse, that's pretty interesting" is what makes America great. Follow him on Twitter, or play his critically acclaimed mobile game Calculords.
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