Tuesday, July 4, 2017

It's Independence Day in America

I wrote and published the following for the last few years on Independence Day, and figured it would be good to publish it here again, as it explains a little bit my version of patriotism, versus what too often passes for patriotism in the United States today. 
That said, I also wanted to mention that this is particularly keen in my mind right now, having just come back from Europe. While there, I saw some remarkable things, and beautiful and historical cities that have seen some incredible chapters in recent history. Specifically, I am thinking of Krakow and Berlin. These are both unique cities with a lot to offer in their own way.
Yet, earlier this evening, I was listening to the radio, and I heard that old and tired sentiment once again - that new York city is the "greatest city in the world". Now, I imagine that most people that express such a sentiment do not actually put much thought behind it. It is something that probably seems acceptable to say, something that they figure their audience will embrace on some level. Perhaps it is even commercially viable. Who knows.
What I do know is that it sounds incredibly narcissistic to my ears. Granted, I do have some roots in another country (France). But when I hear things like that, or when I hear Americans in general talk about how the United States is the "greatest country in the world", I can hardly hold back my distaste. this is crossing the line between healthy patriotism and love of one's country, towards dangerous and petty nationalism and nationalistic xenophobia. 
Personally, I think many of the nation's problems begin, and probably end, with an inability to learn from the examples of others outside of these American borders, in both the positive and the negative sense. When you consider yourself the best in the world, after all, then everyone should be learning from you, copying you, and not the other way around. This is an attitude that, unfortunately, and perhaps tragically, far too many Americans hold. It is a pat on one's own back, and the ultimate in exclusivity, the "insider's club" on a national level. But that does not make it true. 
I was born in the United States, and have lived here for the vast majority of my years. Yes, I feel proud of the patriots of the American Revolution, of the geniuses who wrote so many great words and documents back then. I feel pride when I think of other icons of the American landscape, such as Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Martin Luther King, Jr.. It amazes me that a country so young can already have a rich and diverse body of literature like this one does, with giants such as Thoreau, Emerson, Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Vonnegut, to name just a few. It has produced some incredible music and benefited from the visions of sophisticated artists. This nation has indeed been unique on many levels, and has enjoyed some towering achievements. There is a lot to be proud of.
That is one side of the coin. But the other side that is difficult, if not impossible for me to embrace, is that ugly nationalistic side. The one where people feel a need to express superiority over the rest of the world, and often talk in condescending manner towards "others", both inside and outside of these borders. The one that focuses on hollow phrases assuring one another of our inherent superiority, and by extension, our de facto, presumably God-given right to rule the world as we see fit. 
I regret some of the excesses that exist, largely as a result of these prejudice mindsets. It is really a shame that we keep bombing places, that we keep engaging in self-serving wars for our corporate rulers, yet fail to learn the lessons from the suffering and embarrassment that these wars have caused us (to say nothing of others). It is sad to me that this country continues to make such a point of standing out in any and every way, often seemingly just to make a point of standing out and being different. To that end, we are the nation with the highest incarceration rates, the most crime-ridden nation of the Western world, the only industrialized nation without some form of universal and affordable healthcare, and with a horribly outdated public transportation system and far too many over-sized, gas-guzzling vehicles. We are the most wasteful society that has ever existed, and by some considerable margin at that. We continue not only to poison our air and water and land and foods, but also continue to support policies that will assure more of the same. For that matter, we continue to deny certain ugly truths of our history, which along with the good that I already mentioned, there was also documented and proven cases of genocide of natives, of a long and persistent institution of slavery that took a bloody civil war to end, and of the racist Jim Crow system that followed. And that is saying nothing of the countless other cases of systematic unfairness that public sentiment has too often harbored, if not outright endorsed. 
This nation, in short  has a lot of problems. But the biggest one to me, the one that needs to be gotten over with before we can seriously tackle any of the others, because it is probably the root of many, if not all, of those others, is that ugly narcissism that tends to be obvious to everyone in the world but us. 
That is why I can feel patriotic, but with some reservations. Because not only do I believe that Americans don't need to hear that they are the greatest nation in the world (or on a smaller level, that New York is the greatest city in the world) but, moreover, that they really should not hear these things anymore. They should not constantly be exposed to such prejudiced (yes, that is the word that I am using) mindsets and sentiments. 
Of all of our problems, I think this is the most serious and debilitating one. The one that prevents us from moving forward. Not Washington or Capitol Hill, or the political gridlock that we tend to hear about there over and over. No, we have a deeper, more disturbing gridlock involving our own prejudices. If we got over that sense of superiority and entitlement that we feel towards the rest of the world, as if they owe us and should bend over backwards at every turn to accommodate us, then things would immediately improve for our country, both at home and abroad. Of that, I have no doubt.
That is not likely to happen anytime too soon, but it is my greatest and, yes, my most patriotic hope for this nation. 
As for Independence Day, I feel patriotism, with those qualifications I just stated, because here and now, I wish to declare myself, and my own patriotism, free from the self-serving and egotistic, xenophobic sort, and aim for an improved, healthier patriotism that recognizes America's unique contributions to the world. My patriotism is not a "My country, right or wrong", anything goes kind of patriotism, that can excuse almost any collective national behavior or action. Rather, as I have very occasionally seen bumper stickers of, mine would rather read: "My country: right it's wrongs."
Well, as it turns out, I actually did write fairly extensively on a subject that brings out a lot of passion in me, normally. 
So, here is what I wrote a couple of years ago for Independence Day:

            Every year on this day, I want to write something perfect, that perhaps will neatly encapsulate my own feelings of patriotism towards this country, although my version is perhaps considerably different than those that most people here subscribe to. It is not easy, because so many people have only really been exposed to the one, almost officially sanctioned version of patriotism, that it is almost unimaginable to them that there might be any other kind of patriotism out there.
So, let me now say where my own appreciation of America comes in. I am proud on many levels of America, as well as France. Yes, I am a dual citizen, and find no shame in that, or in either nationality. I could go on about some of the great aspects of each country and it's history (as well as some major criticism), but this is not exactly a college thesis. That might be a project for another time, but not here. Not now.
No, my point here was to identify a different kind of patriotism, often dismissed by many who do not understand it, and subscribe to the louder, more in your face version that is often seen as real patriotism and love of country.
American flags wave all year long, not just on the Fourth of July. Many people wave the flag proudly all year long, even setting up flag poles in their back yards. That in and of itself is not bad, per se. What is bad is the underlying message that many Americans have heard ad nauseum, and believe to be true, ultimately repeating themselves. So many say it and think it, having heard it expressed basically all of their lives, that they have never stopped to think about it even a little bit, or what it's possible ramifications are, or could be. It is not only related to another thing that I have now written a series of blogs over in the recent past (and intend to write quite a few more in the not too distant future), it is in fact the main thing that separates America.
What is that thing, and why do I take such exception to it? That thing would be the sense of superiority that Americans have to the rest of the world. Too many Americans not only believe this, but they equate "patriotism" to this belief, to the point that suggesting anything short of this is somehow unpatriotic. It is firmly believed by many, even by a solid majority of Americans, that the following is simply the uncontested truth: that this country is the "greatest country in the world", or the "shining city" that the rest of the world gazes upon admiringly, or that the USA is #1. Many people feel like believing and reciting these "facts" is what patriotism is all about. What follows this logic is that anybody who disagrees, or questions such mindless political rhetoric, is unpatriotic, or even un-American.
That is why I say that, while I consider myself patriotic in this sense, I do consider myself patriotic – although it would not be a version of patriotism that most Americans might necessarily recognize. I do not feel a sense of superiority to the rest of the world, simply because I was born in these borders, or having grown up and lived in the country that still ranks as the world's leading (if not only) superpower. It is not because we can, and do, impose our power upon those who are weaker than us, that I feel truly more attached to this land. In fact, that is not a source of my pride at all.
What I love about America is, in fact, numerous things, and on many levels. America has produced great minds, great ideas, and great results. It is a beautiful land, with a vast expanse of land and a diverse landscape. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific that it expanded to, and even to the Arctic Ocean, it is a country that offers enormous diversity. There are the isolated and overgrown eastern woods of northern New England and New York, to the untamed forests of towering evergreens in the Pacific Northwest, or the Redwoods in northern California, or the vast wilderness expanses of Alaska. This is a country of frigid winters in the northern states of the lower forty eight, such as North Dakota, or MontanaWyoming, or around the Great Lakes, and New England. But this is also the land of the Florida Everglades, or of the desert expanses in the southwest. There are the Great Plains, where once both the buffalo, as well as the natives that hunted them, used to dwell free. This is the land of much untamed wilderness, and thankfully, much of it can still be seen and enjoyed in national parks, from the powerful falls at Niagara, to the Grand Canyon that stretches for hundreds of miles, to the spouting water of Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park, to the amazing and rugged beauty of Yosemite.
Of course, it is not relegated only to national parks. We have the Smoky Mountains farther down south, we have the Badlands up north. We have the world's only temperate rainforest in Washington State (Lapush), and we have the rugged and largely untouched and undeveloped coastlines of the Pacific Northwest. We also have beautiful coasts along the Great Lakes, particularly in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We have what has often been referred to as the backbone of America, in the Rocky Mountains, or the tamer, far more ancient and rounded, more moderate mountains of the Appalachians. There is the majesty of the Cascade Mountains, and the spectacular, jagged peaks of the Olympic Mountains not far away, on the other side of Puget Sound. The endless grass of the Great Plains, and the incredible, almost lunar landscape of some of the rock formations in western states, most famously perhaps in Utah. This is a land of sparkling lakes and dry desert land, of wetlands and of rivers spanning the length of the nation. It is an incredibly diverse landscape.
For that matter, it is a country that can boast some incredible history, as well. It is a country that was inhabited by natives for thousands of years, who's lifestyle remained largely untouched by modernity, until the first settles from Europe came five centuries ago, slowly but surely growing in numbers. In what is now American territory, there were settlements from many European powers, including HollandSwedenRussiaSpainFrance, and Great Britain. There were those who came here from these, as well as many other countries, as well. Many Germans and Italians and Irish came here from Europe, and many Chinese came here from Asia. Now, we find many Indians and Pakistanis and Vietnamese who came here, as well.  There are millions of people from all the inhabited continents of the world represented here, and that offers an incredible diversity in range and flavor.
This is a land that has produced many great writers and thinkers, including those of the American Revolution – something that I will write another separate blog entry about in the very near future – probably tomorrow. But beyond that, the United States also produced some incredible minds that have changed the political landscape as well, including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, the visionary Woodrow Wilson, who envisioned the League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more. It has produced some great philosophers, thinkers, and literary icons. including Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott (and all of them from the same town of Concord, which also happens to be the location of the first battle of the Revolution!), Mark Twain, Poe, Melville, Steinback, Hemingway, Edgar Cayce, Faulkner, to many of the famous authors of the present day.
Increasingly, the natives who were present before the arrival of the whites also have also received increasing recognition, as their approach to a more balanced way of life is gaining favor with more and more people, as we find our lands, our water, and our air poisoned and wasted with alarming regularity. I think that their wisdom, in particular, will continue to gain much more currency with us, overall.
Yes, this is a country that enjoys a lot of diversity in it's history, from the fragile creation of a fledgling and small nation hugging the Atlantic coast, to it's expanding ever farther westward, even through a grueling and devastating Civil War that many viewed as a precursor to the Great War in Europe, to continued expansion into a de facto empire (not always a history that we should automatically be proud of, but it is part of the history nonetheless), to the rise of American power on a global scale, to the point that it became perhaps the deciding factor in not one, but two global wars. Then , it's rise even farther still, to a superpower of the world as it entered a Cold War, during which time it enjoyed the benefits of the highest standard of living for quite some time, and then the end of that era as the Cold War came to a close, only to see it get entangled now in a "war" on terrorism. We now see it also having it's fair share of problems. Now, here we are, watching as China seems to be rising, and Europe has now gotten it's own share of problems.
This remains a largely stable place to live, despite some severe problems, and seeing some of the violent places around the world, that is nothing to simply scoff or shrug at, or take for granted. That is huge, and I am thankful for that.
However, all of that does not translate to being the best, the greatest, number one. My father came from another country, and he always took exception to that notion of American superiority. He used to ask me that, if America really is number one, then who is number two? Who is number three, or ten, or one hundred? Who is dead last? For that matter, does that mean that the life of an American is, by necessity, more valuable than the life of those of other nationalities? What exactly does it mean when we keep having to pat ourselves on the back and reaffirming our status as the "greatest country in the world", anyway? Does this not possibly enter into territory suspiciously similar to vanity? How come so few people see this?
I want to say this one thing: I personally feel that this level of patriotism is counterproductive, and actually quite destructive. While it may make Americans feel good about themselves, it is, in fact, a divisive, polarizing statement, and a highly political one, at that. It does not matter that most Americans do not see it that way, or the fact that both Democrats and Republicans (and many others outside of the two major parties) feel and express these sentiments whole heartedly as well. This may seem like something positive to Americans, something that brings Americans together. But it sets them apart in a hidden way, as well, and is a source of concern, if not resentment, to the rest of the world outside of our borders. On top of it, this arrogance and presumption of American superiority, or American exceptionalism, as it is often now referred to, blinds many to the possibility of doing it any way but the "American way", even when our way has not proven to work. That is a discussion that I could engage in more, and about many topics (I again refer to the blog about criminalizing affordable healthcare in America), but this is a short blog, and there is no room to get into the details here and now.
In short, it is a Trojan Horse. Plus, it is not even patriotism. It is nationalism, and if anyone studies history, especially recent history, we know that nationalism is not a good thing.
I enjoy the 4th of July, Independence Day, and appreciate much of American history, as well (again, I will write more about one particular aspect of it for tomorrow's entry). But I do not subscribe to that superiority complex, which I personally feel does damage. Patriotism should not necessarily translate to narcissism. 

Finally, I thought that it would be appropriate to add this link to a Robert Reich video, where he also explore patriotism. It is something that I can appreciate, and hope, if you have read this far in, that maybe you will, too:

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