Press Box

Patriot Games

The Fourth of July fantasies of the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger.

The first clue that Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger’s argument about the resurgence of patriotism in the post-9/11 era is bunk comes in the opening paragraphs of his July 5 piece, “Sousa’s Song Will Never Die: American Patriotism Rocks On.” In several quick sentences, Henninger, who claims to have grown up on rock music, muffs several simple historical facts about rock ’n’ roll.

Hooking the death of rock to the rebirth of patriotism (don’t ask), Henninger attributes the lyrics, “Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay, it will never die,” to the “rock-musical Grease,” adding that the song was “made into an anthem by the oldies group Sha-na-na.”

As any oldies radio listener knows, “Rock ’n’ Roll Is Here to Stay” became anthemic in 1958, when Danny and the Juniors scored their hit—11 years before Sha Na Na covered the tune and two decades before Hollywood augmented the musical’s original Broadway production by adding the Sha Na Na version of the song to the show.

Already on academic probation, Henninger flunks out of rock ’n’ roll high school when he next claims that rock died after it “finally broke down in the late 1980s, splintering into sub-genres (grunge, ska, post-rock, nu-metal, surf revival) that have made popular music too abstruse to follow.”

Music scholars can debate whether or not rock ’n’ roll is taking the dirt nap, but if it did it’s not because of late ‘80ssplintering into the genres Henninger describes. Grunge didn’t arrive in the mainstream until the autumn of 1991 with the release of discs by Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Ska has periodically punctuated the Top 100 since the late ‘60s. Only a few cultists have ever purchased a surf revival recording or attended a show by one of its exponents. As for nu-metal, is Henninger referring to early ‘90s artists Korn and Rage Against the Machine, or is the columnist who knows diddly about early rock desperate to prove that he also knows nothing about its recent history? Popular music isn’t that abstruse: The Journal’s own arts pagescover its many genres without breaking a sweat.

But Henninger’s rock stupidity looks like genius compared to his views on the rise and fall of American patriotism. “The American idea of commonly held patriotism has in fact been ‘dead’ for about 30 years. That is, it died around 1970, in the years of Vietnam,” he writes. “After Vietnam, however, the idea that America should serve this purpose [of defending the attacked], that this fell within the realm of patriotism, was no longer jointly held. The idea that the United States, because of its history and its achievement, should use its political, economic and military power to lead was challenged, constantly, and from within.”

Only now (inspired by 9/11, goes Henninger’s argument) are we once more willing to marry military intervention to patriotism and defend the innocent against their aggressors.

This, of course, is palpable bull. In the early ‘80s, Rockin’ Ronnie Reagan’s “Urgent Fury” Tour of Grenada reinstituted the patriotic vision of Pax Americana, as did George Bush’s “Just Cause” Tour of Panama in the ‘90s. The protests they inspired were few and weak. And has Henninger already forgotten the patriotic processions down the boulevard of heroes that came after the allies punched Saddam’s lights out in the Gulf War? People cheered tanks and planes in the streets of Washington, D.C. Flags were everywhere!

It’s wishful thinking to believe that 9/11 has fortified the interventionist ambitions of American patriots. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll put American support of an Iraq invasion at about 50 percent. That’s hardly the patriotic blank check that Henninger posits.

Crazy-legging his way toward a jury-rigged conclusion, Henninger writes, “Patriotism of course didn’t really die. But it kept its head down; or it came out as a bitter shout, a rebuke to its critics.”

Which patriots kept their head down? And what “bitter shouts” is Henninger talking about? It’s a greasy argument (sorry!) that’s so long on generalities and so short on specifics.