I am not a patriot. I am not proud to be an American, because I did nothing myself to become one. If anyone can be proud that I am an American, it is my great-grandparents who decided to leave everything they knew and make the arduous journey to begin a new life in a strange land. They are the ones who made it possible for their descendants to be born Americans. But none of that was my doing. I can also thank my ancestors for the fact that I am tall, smart, and have hazel eyes and a killer rack, but I cannot take credit for any of that, either, so being proud of what is merely an accident of birth just seems silly. I cannot be proud of things that I am; I can only be proud of things that I do. I can be proud of the fact that through practice and effort I have become a better singer than I used to be, but I cannot be proud of the fact that I was born with a decent singing voice to begin with. That was just the luck of the genetic draw.
The volume (in all senses of the word) of the public discussion of patriotism—mine, yours, his, who has it and who doesn’t—increased significantly after 9/11 and has continued through five years of wartime; sadly, it has the flavor of every witch hunt that ever was. We are all expected to have blind devotion to the concept of our country, regardless of the behavior of our country, and if we do not we are branded heretics and terrorists, and invited to “go back to Russia,” a telling statement in a political climate uncomfortably reminiscent of McCarthyism.
Edward R. Murrow, in a critique of McCarthy, had this to say:
“His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. […] We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully.”
The more things change…
The savaging of Michelle Obama over her comment that she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life illustrates the state of American “patriotism” in 2008. I found nothing in her statement to critique; I cannot think of many things I’ve been particularly proud of this country as a whole for, in my lifetime or in others’. We created the Three-Fifths Compromise. We turned away a ship full of Jewish refugees during WWII. I was born during the Nixon administration, which was not a high point of American governance. We elected a moron–twice. We’re occupying Iraq, and for what? We don’t behave, as a nation via our government, impeccably. Which is par for the course, I suppose–what nation does? But if we admit that’s the case, we need to get over the idea that we are the best in the world and remember we are merely one more group that’s in the world. There is plenty of room for improvement.
It is difficult for me to uphold America as a paragon of “how it should be done,” when we so frequently do it wrong, when we are poor neighbors in our global neighborhood, when we choose our friends (and our enemies) based on their wallets (and ours) instead of on the basis of those same principles. We consider China a great friend, a country that mows down with tanks those who would attempt to exercise free speech. Afghanistan only became interesting as the war on terror expanded; the fact that the Taliban had kept half its population in virtual slavery there for years didn’t cause Washington to even blink, let alone step in in the name of “Freedom,” supposedly our holiest of holies.
When our government, a government we (ostensibly) voted for, casually legislates the Bill of Rights out of existence as they spy on us, disappear people from the street and detain them for years without a trial, seek to amend the Constitution to withhold civil rights, and claim that all dissenting voices are nothing less than treasonous, we are in no position to foist American-style “freedom” upon other countries; the very idea is ludicrous. Indeed, every last thinking person should be choking on the irony; I certainly find it hard to swallow.
I happen to think America is an amazing country in terms of its diversity, its beauty, and the boldness of its social experiment, and there are few others in the world I’d consider living in instead, given the choice. The standard of living and opportunities here are among the highest in the world. The fundamental principles upon which our country was founded are right and righteous. However, the execution and protection of those principles has been less stellar, even from the beginning; this chasm always develops between ideal and practice. I am not blind to our faults as a nation; they are clear enough, and to speak of them makes me someone who cares enough about this country to see it clearly and try to make it better. That’s what we need from citizens, not flag pins and jingoism. Sadly, the latter is what we have in abundance. For some people that’s enough; for some of those, it’s all there is. There is a fair portion of the population who does not apprehend the disconnect between our purported fight for freedom and the continuation of our American way of life and the slow chipping away at civil liberties, constitutional separation of powers, and executive regard for laws domestic and international that are the bedrock of and North Star guiding that very way of life.
The concept of a nation is analogous to the rearing of children, I think. Like children, a government or a nation is made up of the traits of the people who brought it into existence. It needs to be fostered to grow up into something good, and not allowed to run wild, because things get broken and the child gets hurt. Sometimes we’re proud of it, sometimes we’re disappointed, but through it all, we have to love it enough to see it clearly, both its virtues and vices, and correct those vices we perceive because it’s what’s best for both the child and society at large. That’s what makes a parent. And that, in my view, is what makes a citizen.
America is a pretty cool place, for me at least, but greatness requires more of us. Nationalism is useless; it is merely another aspect of xenophobia. True greatness requires effort: effort to make sure that our actions are consistent with our principles, and that our principles are noble to begin with. The good news is, I think we are capable of it. I think any nation is. The question is, will we become that nation? I would like to be proud to be an American, not because I was born here, but because America does the right thing.
On Independence Day, I do not celebrate the supposed greatness of this country, like I imagine a patriot would. I celebrate the independence of thought, and the desire for freedom from interference of all kinds upon which it was based. I celebrate that we felt civil rights and personal freedoms to be so important that we codified them. These rights were, and remain (just barely) our greatness as a nation. And I mourn the fact that these are being willfully degraded, and abdicated by those who don’t understand just what it is they are surrendering.