My great-grandfather, “Pops,” gave up everything to move here from Italy because he loved the United States. But sometimes, he also hated this country’s guts.
A proud American who nevertheless kept a picture of Mussolini on his night table, Pops left Naples for New York in 1904, with wife and small children in tow. He moved less for freedom than for fortune; why he thought there was a fortune waiting for an uneducated, middle-aged custom-suit tailor encumbered by a burgeoning family — seven kids by the time they were done — is anyone’s guess. Rumor, propaganda and Horatio Alger, Jr. in cheap translations all probably had something to do with it.
The Great Depression altered his perspective. On the eve of the 1929 crash, he filed for citizenship, identifying his race as “white”; when he was finally naturalized seven years later he labeled himself “Southern Italian,” in a small act of protest.
It was probably around then that he became fixated on Benito Mussolini. There’s an old photo in which he stands in front of his glass storefront in the Bronx, compact, barrel-chested, mustachioed and furious. That the son of a blacksmith could grow up to be a dictator probably seemed to Pops an inspiring story of real opportunity.
About that time, Ezra Pound was giving full, baroque expression to more or less the same crackpot philofascism. Not only in the “Cantos,” his epic, but in peculiar tracts with titles such as “Jefferson and/or Mussolini.” His lifelong campaign of bringing about an “American Risorgimento” in poetry and the arts was carried out mostly abroad, first in London and Paris, then in Italy. This most American of poets indeed spent little of his adult life in the U.S., but he did make three return visits. The first was in 1910, to persuade the New York Public Library, then under construction, to change its design. No luck. The second was in 1939, to persuade the U.S. not to enter World War II. Also no luck. The last was in 1945, to stand trial as a traitor for his pro-fascist, anti-Semitic rants on Rome radio. This time, a bit of luck: Robert Frost and other writers organized a campaign that resulted in his spending 13 years in an insane asylum instead of being executed.
Pound’s career — his trajectory from rebellious instigator to reactionary crank — still makes people uncomfortable. But he’s only an extreme example of a iconic American type: the patriot whose love of country is heat-tempered with defection and disavowal.
American patriotism is indeed so often fused with its seditious opposite that the contradiction passes unnoticed. Good ol’ boys who fly the Confederate flag next to the Stars and Stripes are called out for their racism but not their ideological incoherence. They inspire revulsion and outrage but not perplexity. For what could possibly be more American than personal secession — which combines, after all, the original sin of the American Revolution with the mystique of the heroic individual?
The right has no monopoly on this. As a leftist who considers National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden an American hero, I’ll concede that a measure of his appeal for me derives from his subversiveness, from his direct flouting of a president I voted for, twice. Snowden talks about “turnkey tyranny” and I feel patriotic. “We are the nation that produces this kind of individual courage!” I think to myself, not unfatuously.
I find it nauseating when the National Rifle Association wraps itself in the flag while ranting about “jack-booted government thugs.” But I find it stirring, lyrical and inspiring when the unforgettable Mickey Sabbath, a Philip Roth creation, wraps himself in the American flag and pees and masturbates onto his dead lover’s grave. When the cops show up, “Sabbath could easily have tucked himself into his trousers and pulled up the zipper. But he wouldn’t.”
Is this appalling tableau a consecration or a desecration? Or like straight-up flag-burning, a bit of both? I don’t know, but it made me laugh, hard, and it made me proud to be an American.
Patriotic “secession” can take ludic form intentionally or unintentionally. There is no more ridiculous piece of visual wit than the image of Neil Armstrong saluting the American flag while standing on the surface of the moon. In the running for a distant second is the invisible “sculpture” marking the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, which consists of six inches of bare earth and the words: “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.”
More recently, Dean Kamen, the American inventor and Renaissance man who brought us the Segway, bought an island off the coast of Connecticut and seceded — verbally, at least — from the United States. You might call that a joke, but then you might say the same about the Segway. Still, no one ever questioned Dean Kamen’s patriotism. Why would they? He’s in the tradition of Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison and, for that matter, Elon Musk, who will probably secede from the solar system when he gets to Mars.
While Musk heads for the moon, his former Paypal colleague Peter Thiel is setting keel to breakers to “establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems.” He calls them “seasteads” — the new homesteads, only on massive sea platforms.
Balaji Srinivasan, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, is predicting he defines as “an opt-in society, ultimately outside the U.S., run by technology.” In a rambling, exhilaratingly absurd speech at the Y Combinator Startup School, Srinivasan invoked the legacy of the Puritans, the Founding Fathers, Ellis Island, “people leaving pogroms, and in the 20th century fleeing Nazism and Communism,” America as the nation of immigrants and emigrants, and so on, all as the basis for what he proposes as “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit,” the creation of “new countries” in which warfare becomes software, laws become code, and so on.
Srinivasan’s speech was nuts, but it made a kind of sense. The spirit of American secession lives on, for some. It is not today’s downtrodden, but rather its elite, who are setting out to settle a new world for themselves.