The patriot's act

I like being a newspaper columnist.

When people I know introduce me to people I don’t know, they say: “This is Lev, he’s a columnist.”

And most times, people say in response, “A columnist! Wow, you must be clever.”

If they don’t say it, I like to think I see it in their eyes. In my imagination, girls find it tragically sexy.

A couple of days ago, though, it was different.

I hadn’t seen my friend Judd in a while and though he’s a banker, he’s worth hanging out with and had an amusing idea: come to the John McCain luncheon, a bunch of American business people in South Africa are hosting it right here in Johannesburg. Judd’s uncle is one of them.

I didn’t even know there were John McCain luncheons in South Africa.
So I went.

It’s an afternoon gathering at a house on a hill with its own guardhouse and a lawn that stayed green all winter. People are eating things cold I thought you were supposed to eat hot and things hot I thought you were supposed to eat cold and Judd explains in a leaned-in whisper that this, apparently, is the proper way.

Men and women wearing white clothes, having no fear of stains, are laughing that American laaaf, pumped out of mouths at 30 degrees to the horizontal, clearing the trees at the end of the garden, losing no momentum. Everybody has fantastic teeth.

Judd’s going to introduce me to his uncle.

J Dewey Heynes is a big man who, out of choice more than necessity, grunts with every step and turn. You can’t imagine he was ever a baby, but you can imagine him at 12 and cruel to animals. Now in his mid-60s, he appears to have been moulded out of mashed potatoes.

I’m guessing J Dewey Heynes wouldn’t ordinarily like me. Only, he’s about to hear what I do for a living:

“This is Lev,” says Judd.

J Dewey Heynes lets out a grunt that probably translates as, “Why should I care?”

He looks away to a wandering sparrow, wishing he had his shotgun. Judd continues:

“He’s a columnist.”

J Dewey Heynes swings to stare me down with eyes so cold. There’s a sound he makes, deep in his throat, that low, even grumble dangerous animals make before they attack. He opens his mouth to speak.

“I fought your kind in ‘Nam.”

He doesn’t stop staring. I don’t understand. Judd cuts in:

“Columnist, Uncle Dewey. Not communist.”

“Columnist? For the newspapers?” asks Uncle Dewey.

“The best newspapers,” says Judd.

“I don’t care for the newspapers.”

There’s silence.

He’s staring off at the wandering sparrow. “Communist,” he mutters under his breath.

Then he turns back to Judd and me.

“I’ll tell you who’s a communist, that Barack Hussein Obama. Fifth column commie scum.”

So, why is it that some Americans are as weary as they are of Barack Obama? Why, at this stage of the presidential race, after he’s already won the democratic nomination, does his wife need to dedicate her speech at the Democratic National Convention to proving that her husband is American enough?

Well, there aren’t a lot of good reasons, so maybe we should consider a few bad ones: he has that crazy name, he has a Kenyan father, he’s black.

Uncle Dewey is a patriot. He uses that word. Spend enough time around patriots—be they American or South African—and you realise how often patriotism has bigotry at its heart.

To effectively celebrate what it means to be American, one has to sidestep the possibility that there are several definitions for that. An infinite number, in fact. But patriotism demands that we exclude.

If Obama doesn’t win (I’m still betting that he will), I worry that it will be because a bunch of good Americans were doing exactly what their patriotism demanded of them.

Not that I believe Obama is the second-coming. I’m pretty damn weary about his vagueness on a few of the issues myself. (What, exactly, does it mean to end the war in Iraq “responsibly”?) Still, I’m guessing he’s a better choice than the old guy and will be a giant leap forward for all of our understandings of what it means to be from a place.

And so, there I am, standing on the lawn, thinking about how to compose all this deep thought into a neat and deadly one-line comeback for Uncle Dewey.

He’s a big man. I take a small step back.

“I like his ideas on universal healthcare,” I say.

Uncle Dewey squints and spits:

“Commie.”

He walks off.

Columnist. Communist. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.

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