The scene is a Smokey Robinson concert in Washington. The show almost over, he returns to the stage for an encore. But instead of singing "I'll Try Something New" or "Shop Around," the bard of Motown launches into "The Star-Spangled Banner." Members of his band wave tiny American flags.
It's too much for a woman in the back of the hall. She walks out grumbling. "At least," she grouses, "he didn't sing that damn 'God Bless America."'
Point being that these are hard times for cynics. Suddenly they find themselves wandering a world festooned in red, white and blue bunting, where there's an apple pie on every window sill, a picket fence bordering every yard, and that hated Lee Greenwood song coming out of every radio. "God bless the USA," he sings over and over and over again.
"Enough is enough!" roared a reader of mine in a recent e-mail. He pronounced himself fed up with the "excessive patriotic blather" of this very column in the weeks since Sept. 11. Unfortunately, he didn't say how much qualifies as excessive, so it's going to be difficult to adjust the blather level hereabouts.
Still, it's a recurrent theme lately, heard mainly in the form of lonely heresies grumbled in passing, like the woman in the concert hall or letters to the editor from people who seem obsessed with reminding us that this nation is much, much less than perfect. And then there's Aaron McGruder, who has been taking sharp jabs at the current patriotic fervor in his comic strip, "The Boondocks." In response, a number of newspaper editors have yanked it from their pages.
I wish they wouldn't. It's healthy, I think, for a society to hear contrarian views even especially in times of overwhelmingly united public opinion.
Still, it's fascinating that, in light of recent events, some of us find it necessary to be contrarian in the first place.
Yes, I'll grant that we the people have been laying on the treacly sentimentality with a trowel lately. But what else would you expect of a nation traumatized by the shock of seeing literally, seeing 6,000 innocent people killed in an instant? We are under attack because of who we are and what we are. It's only natural to embrace those things.
Some people, you might say, didn't even know they were American until Sept. 11. The world is different now.
Before Sept. 11, most of us were cynics or at least, thought we were. Now the real cynics are wondering where everybody else went.
Before Sept. 11, ironic detachment was the state religion. Now people are flocking to churches, mosques and synagogues.
Before Sept. 11, we were too knowing, too weary, too worldly, to actually feel anything as quaint as country love. Now, like smokers banished to balconies, the few remaining cynics find themselves abruptly alone, unexpectedly abandoned, even by their own.
Like most Americans, I've rarely missed an opportunity to criticize this country for its failings. Did it before, going to do it again. But I've never understood criticizing the country and loving it to be mutually exclusive.
What I'm discovering though, is that for some folks, criticism was its own reward. They criticize, therefore they are. So they don't know what to do with themselves when society declares a moratorium on censure and fault-finding is superseded, even momentarily, by earnestness.
Most of us, though, understand the admonition of Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season." We are now in a season for mourning an unthinkable violation, a season for being reminded that ours is, for all its assorted defects, mendacities, hypocrisies and isms, a pretty good country, overall.
I wasn't one of those who discovered himself to be American on Sept. 11. But I suppose you could say I was reminded, as many of us were. When those planes impaled those skyscrapers, I took it personally. Still do. This is my country, after all. And I love my country.
It's not strange that some of us feel compelled to say that. What's strange is that some of us, even now, cannot.