National Catholic Register

Commentary

Napoleon Of Queen Anne Hill

BY Mark Shea

July 27-August 9, 2008 Issue | Posted 7/22/08 at 1:25 PM

 

I love local patriots. I always loved Robert E. Lee because when he said he could not lift his sword against his country, he meant Virginia, not America.

I love Willa Cather because in My Antonia she makes it clear that she is trying to do for Nebraska what Virgil did for Rome: sing the glories of her home.

Anybody who loves the home — especially their home — is all right by me. And anybody who truly loves their home appreciates others who love theirs.

I learned that from G.K. Chesterton, who was an ardent English patriot and an ardent foe of imperialism living at the height of the British Empire. As was often the case, what to the rest of the world looked like a self-contradiction was, to Chesterton, a perfectly reasonable paradox. He loved his country because it was his home, not because it dominated the homes of everybody else. Indeed, he loved his country as God tells us to love our neighbor: unconditionally. As he himself put it:

“Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing — say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. … If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.”

Chesterton was such a patriot that he believed people in other likely places felt much the same way about their home as he felt about his and sympathized with their justified sense of resentment when his own country tried to dominate other homes. So he opposed the Boer War and the English occupation of Ireland (and English imperialism in general).

He rejected thinking like “My country, right or wrong” for the same reason he rejected “My mother, drunk or sober.” But he never dreamed of ceasing to love England.

Chesterton’s greatest work exploring this theme of local patriotism vs. mere bigness is The Napoleon of Notting Hill. If you haven’t read it, you should.

And while you read it, you should look around at your home and thank God for it. You should also read the works of those who look around at their homes and thank God for them. It’s amazing the empathy you discover with people who live in places you yourself could never call home.

I’m a native Seattleite.

I love my home with that primal Chestertonian love, not because of what Seattle can achieve, nor because of what I stand to gain from her, nor (emphatically) because I agree with my fellow citizens of the “Soviet of Washington State” about political and cultural matters — but because it is my city and I am hers.

I love stepping off a plane at Sea-Tac after a long trip to some other part of the world and smelling the salt air of Puget Sound.

I love the cool dampness.

I love the curiously slow pace here compared to most of the rest of the country.

I love the cherries and peaches that grow in our yard. I love seeing mountains on all sides.

I love the kindness of the people.

I love being able to go to places that are, for our family, historic locations, such as the 520 Bridge across Lake Washington, where the fog curled over our car like the protective Hand of God the night I drove Jan to the hospital in Redmond to give birth to Luke.

I love swimming in the lakes in the summer.

I love the San Juan Islands.

I love the endless memories I have of trips to the waterfront, or walks to the library, or sitting in Blessed Sacrament parish, or visits to the Seattle Center (there at the foot of Queen Anne Hill) that go back to 1962.

I could go on, of course, but the point is, so could you. And so you should.

Patriotism is just the second commandment extended past the neighbor who happens to be standing next to you to the neighbors who make up your neighborhood, city, state, and country.

Ultimately, of course, we are to be patriots of the human race. But the key is to love your neighbor, not to try to turn his home into yours.

Mark Shea is senior content editor

for CatholicExchange.com.