On One Hand

September 25, 2008

In Defense of Patriotism

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 7:28 pm
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Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 40 years after the end of legal segregation and 5 years after the launch of the war in Iraq – a day when compassion and intelligence were reviled as dangerous ideas – could we be where we are today in American politics. A woman and a Black man – two unheard-ofs in the presidential level of politics – were in close contest to be one of the two major candidates for the nation’s highest office.

In 2008 I was intimately involved in electing Barack Obama president. The effort has embodied everything I love about this country.

In the spring, Michelle Obama made a comment that struck a chord with my deepest emotions toward our moment in history. She said that in the midst of her husband’s campaign, for the first time in her adult life, she feels really proud of her country. The crowd was on its feet in heartfelt applause and agreement.

Yet this surge in pride and joy of the American spirit – as abstract and elusive as that spirt is – was immediately under fire by her political opponents. They asked, why wasn’t Michelle Obama already proud of her country? Why is she only proud of America now?

We ask instead, why did she choose that language to describe a patriotism that is just as real for her as anyone – and why were those words used against her?

For too long we’ve let ourselves sink into a narrow-minde definition of what “America” is and where in it is our pride. We’ve let other people tell us that we are not patriots, or that we are not fully members of American society. We’ve responded to America defined as a specific set of policies and ideas that do not benefit everyone – and rejected the America embodied therein.

We were affected deeply by that rhetoric. That’s why we haven’t always “felt” patriotic all these years. The negative influence seeped into our minds until on some level we surrendered to the false claim that the policies and ideas we oppose are somehow really the heart and soul of this nation – and that something must be fundementally wrong with our culture as a whole for enacting them.

The year 2008 reminded me where the America I love lay hidden. It wasn’t that we weren’t patriotic, it’s that the kind of stuff we feel patriotic about was pushed to the sidelines. We have someone who, rhetorically and intellectually, espouses the beleif that America is for everyone and everyone is for America. The tone of the Obama campaign summed it up – insisting that the America we love was America all along, and therefore we have always loved America.

The America that I am proud of is full of faces that do not all look alike, dress alike or act alike. There are men and women, young and old, American Indians, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterners, immigrants, natives, workers, students, pioneers, adventurers, teachers, doctors, priests, monks, imams and activists… you get where this is going.

Among them are heroes: people who lived, fought and died for the benefit of this nation both in the uniform and out. They are heroes like Martin Luther King Jr, like the freedom writers who were taunted and harrassed and beaten to give the decendents of America’s original sin, slavery, a chance at equality. Heroes like Abrahalm Lincoln, Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy who died because after making a choice to fight for those rights for others. Heroes like Harvey Milk, Ceasar Chavez, Dorothea Lynde Dix, Dorothy Day, Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Thumban who took great personal risk to lead others to freedom.

Among them are pioneers, inventors and entrepreneurs: people who worked hard to reach or discover something that would change the course of history. They settled the West and laid down the railroad, which marked the beginning of American economic dominance. They invented the lightbulb and developed the alternating current. Pioneers and entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Carl Sagan, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver, Orville and Wilbur Wright and Albert Einstein.

Among them are historians, artists and thinkers: people who wove together the stories that define our self-identity. They are Walt Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ansel Adams, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsburg, Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock and Billie Holiday.

I don’t see anything to indicate that one has to be a war hero to be fully “American,” or that one must be politically or socially conservative. Did those movements and narratives, recognizing the contribution of every person, suddenly subside under the Bush Administration, did they cease to exist on the day that American planes first showered bombs on Baghdad?

Or did we just forget that those stories are America, they are us and we are a part of them?

It is natural to lose affection for a culture or identity when one is told that he or she is not a true member of it. Blacks have not been treated as fully American and have had a higher hurdle to clear when defending their American-ness. Catholics have not been treated as fully American and had a higher hurdle to clear when defending their American-ness. American Indians have not been treated as fully American and have had a higher hurdle to clear when defending their American-Ness. Latinos have not been treated as fully American and have had a higher hurdle to clear when defending their American-ness. Gay and lesbian Americans have not been treated as fully American and have had a higher hurdle to clear whne defending their American-Ness.

But I am nothing less that fully American, I love this country, I beleive its history and its struggles taps the depth of human history and conscienceness. I want this country to keep moving on that path. That makes me a patriot, and I accept the charge.

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2 Comments »

  1. Ya know, the idea of patriotism sits really uncomfortably with me…and no, I don’t think of myself as patriotic. I really love lots of things about Ireland, but the fact that I’m Irish is incidental…my parents could’ve had me in a number of different countries.

    Patriotism is a muddied word in Ireland though…nationalism is synonymous with those who wish for a “United Ireland” and, often, those that would fight and kill for it. For example, the average Irish family would never have an Irish flag shown anywhere inside or outside their house. To display an Irish flag in Ireland is to be making a statement other than “I love my country”.

    Comment by brian33 — September 26, 2008 @ 6:02 am | Reply

    • I was considering adding an “I am not an American” option to the poll but I forgot to do it.

      I know “patriotic” is something different in Europe. It’s not considered a must have by any means, whereas in the United States being “patriotic” is a standard test for any American office. To most Americans (probably a slim majority) it basically means you care about the country. To a section a little to the right of them it is a bunch of trivial symbolisms like waving flags, standing for the national anthem, and putting physical decorations up around the house (especially in July) and trivial things like that, and also a natural support for the military (but not necessarily support for everything the military does). But to anyone right of center it means having a certain set of values that includes an extreme adoration for the military, support for all pro-war government policy, a sense of superiority to other countries, and a dis-like of certain other countries that seem to be selected at random for political expedience (In 2000 it was Canada for their nationalized healthcare program, in 2002-4 it was France for their opposition to the Iraq war, in 2008 it seems to be Iran and Russia.)

      Comment by ononehand — September 26, 2008 @ 6:26 am | Reply


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