Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Patriotism and Nationalism

On the celebration of my country’s independence from Britain (I don’t say “birthday,” there were people here before us), I always find myself frustrated, and sometimes torn.  Torn between being sourpuss and sitting at home, refusing to celebrate a day that I find disingenuous, and going out with my friends, many of whom feel similarly to me but prefer to enjoy the day’s activities nonetheless.  Yesterday, I chose the latter, and headed out for a long day on the Esplanade with friends, a picnic, and at the very end of the evening, Boston’s spectacular pyrotechnics accompanied by crappy music (Seriously?  Who let Celine Dion sing “God Bless America?”  She’s Canadian!)

At one point, the inevitable discussion came up with a friend whose politics aren’t drastically far from mine, but who was chanting “USA! USA!”  I don’t know what it is about that particular chant that makes my skin crawl…perhaps its our current occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Perhaps it’s the continued state-sponsored racism–from the police shooting of Oscar Grant to the TSA’s “random” searches of Arabs to the complete unwillingness to discuss reparations.

Nevertheless–and despite my genuine love of many things American–I find it difficult to cheer for my country right now.  Frankly, I always have.  I remember being a young girl and arguing with my dad over why the US is not the “best country in the world.”  I don’t think, at that point, I’d even left US soil, save perhaps for Canada, but I somehow knew better.  Twenty-some odd years later and I’m now certain of that fact.

But let me get back to the subject of this blog post, which is the conflation of patriotism with nationalism.  Patriotism is love of the fatherland, or, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, “love and devotion to one’s country.”  Nationalism, on the other hand, implies identification of a group of individuals with a political entity defined in national terms.  As you might imagine, I strongly reject nationalism; nationalism is what leads Israeli Jews to deny the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and continue to steal Palestinian land for the sake of their nation.  It is what lead American settlers to treat non-whites (particularly native Americans) as second-class or non-citizens.  It is what lead Nazi Germany to attempt a race-state, putting the rights of so-called Aryans above all others.  Nationalism, in my view, leads to ethnocentrism.  It is what causes Americans to think they’re better than everyone else.

Patriotism I am less certain about.  On the one hand, devotion to one’s country above all else leads to the same types of geopolitical disputes that nationalism can cause.  Patriotism implies love of one’s country simply because it happens to be one’s country, which isn’t a very good reason to love something, if you ask me.  On the other hand, the idea of loving the land, the landscape, the place in which you are born and where you come from, is a strong one.  Of course, that land, for me, is not “America,” but New England, its mountainous landscapes and broad lakes, its short summers and hardy winters.  And beyond the land, New England’s liberal ideals, its modern leaning toward gay rights, its quaint puritanism, hell, even its terrible drivers…all things I’ve grown up with and come to love.  This country is too huge for me to devote myself to, but to New England I could happily pledge allegiance.  I guess that makes me a New England Patriot (hardy har har).

Another thought raised by another friend is the idea of celebrating Independence Day by celebrating not the country in its current incarnation but in its ideals, the five main ones being equality, rights, liberty, opportunity, and democracy.  I have no bones to pick with any of those as ideals, of course.  But have they ever truly existed in this country?  And should that matter when celebrating a country’s ideals?  Ask a Native American or a gay person who wants to get married how he or she feels about equality.  Ask an Arab-American flying into the US how he feels about liberty and rights.  Ask someone born into rural poverty how she feels about opportunity.

And yet, this is the country in which I was born and, at the current moment, in which I choose to live.  And thus, it is my responsibility to fight for the access of every American (born here, brand new, or potential) to those rights.  “America-love it or leave it” this is not; we must not love our country unconditionally, but rather, we should, as its citizens, continue to fight for those ideals so that we may be proud.  I don’t believe that makes me a patriot, nor do I believe this is the time to chant “USA!”  I am not proud of my country right now, but I aspire to be.

27 Comments

  1. Can’t we still chant “USA” even if we don’t agree with some policies ?!
    I find it hard to stay neutral when a US soccer team is playing ! When the Celtics are playing !
    I am part of America, and America is part of me, of my culture ! It’s how I define my identity…
    Being Patritotic is totally natural !

    • For what it’s worth, Rachid, I’m not remotely saying that YOU can’t. I’m saying that I don’t feel comfortable cheering in that manner. Also, when I define my identity, my national identity is not even close to the top of the list.

      Which is not to say I never cheer for US sports teams, of course. I’m extremely proud of our soccer team :)

  2. INTERVIEW FOR MY BLOG http://mohamed.ali.over-blog.com/

    1) Qui est Jillian C. York?

    2) La famille de Jillian?

    3) Le travail de Jillian C. York?

    4) Vous êtes une grande voyageuse. Parlez-nous un peu de vos voyages!

    5) Où est-ce que vous aimeriez vivre les dernières années de votre vie?

    6) Quel est votre auteur préféré?

    7) Les publications de Jillian C. York?

    Please include a bio (in French) and a photo.

    Best wishes

  3. Nice post.

    Today I found something very inspiring, one of the last projects that Howard Zinn worked on was “The People Speak”. It was apparently televised on the History Channel, but I missed it.

    Actors read Zinn’s selected statements from American history that document the struggle to create a better society for all. I watched the small clips on the web site, they are powerful:

    http://www.history.com/shows/the-people-speak

  4. Btw, on the subject of July 4th, on the videos from the page above, Morgan Freeman reads a great piece, click on the “videos” link

  5. Brilliant post Jillian,
    There is however one exception where chanting “USA! USA!” won’t cause a concern for you I’m sure. There is a little coastal city south of Casablanca called Azemmour, which you might have visited in the past. Every Sunday, people there chant, I kid you not, “USA! USA!” very proudly and pretentiously. There is a good reason for that: their local football team, L’Union Sportive d’Azemmour. So each time you feel uncomfortable hearing those nationalistic chants, think about that little insignificant football club.

  6. @ Rachid

    What’s stange about it?

    This was just a cordial invitation. Jillian, who interviewed me for GVO, is free to accept or refuse to be interviewed for my blog.
    Besides, I thought the message would be moderated and not come out right away.
    The number of my French readers is growing by the day and many people wish to be featured in my blog. You will see this with your own eyes!

    Salaams.

  7. Enjoyed the post Jilian.

    I felt very similarly when I returned to the US after my first study abroad trip. I described the feeling to a professor as a “modified, unreflexive patriotism”.

    After years spent abroad, I still feel the same way. The US disturbs me in many ways. The suburban way of life dependent on the car and thus on oil. The dependence on debt in order to pursue a perversion of the American Dream. The anti-intellectualism and xenophobia. The fact that so many unborn children are denied the right to live because they happen to be inconvenient.

    And yet the US has given me countless opportunities in a way that I would never have had in most other countries. As you have, I’ve certainly benefited from American economic, political, cultural, military, and academic power, however queasy we might feel about it. And we’ve even benefited in ways not available to all Americans.

    So we need to be thankful for those opportunities while recognizing the imperfections.

    I wonder, though, if you don’t tend a little too much towards the utopian when you say, “But have they ever truly existed in this country?” when speaking about American values. I think they have all existed in a very strong form. They guide very diverse sorts of people, however imperfectly. If you mean “perfectly” by “truly”, then yes, you are correct. But when has any society ever followed its own ideals perfectly?

    • Thanks Chris. Sorry I’m just getting around to responding!

      I probably do tend toward the utopian, but I think that the point I didn’t quite reach in this post is the discussion of American exceptionalism. You are absolutely right about the things we’ve benefited from (and yes, for us that probably involves a great big heaping dose of white privilege), but at the same time, I’ve felt that I’ve been reminded of that constantly throughout my life by people who assume that such things can’t be had elsewhere.

      When I moved to Morocco, I felt like I had everything I needed. After awhile, of course, I started to miss plenty, and usually rather trivial things…peanut butter (it’s there now, but when I lived there, the only company that exported it–in New Orleans–was damaged by Hurricane Katrina!), flavored coffee, properly fitting sheets. At the same time, when I first started traveling to Europe each winter, I started feeling like there, I had more than I could ever possibly need, or even find, back home. Incidentally, I still feel that way whenever I venture to Europe.

      In any case, what I’m trying to say is that I do appreciate the wonderful things my country has afforded me, but I don’t think that–most of them–are unique to the U.S. anymore.

  8. Also, I’m not sure what sort of discussion you hope the American public can have about reparations, but perhaps you missed the enlightening debate a couple of months ago regarding “Tradition and the Black Atlantic” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Beer Summit fame.

    He pointed out some major problems in any reparations scheme, the main ideas of which he outlined in this editorial: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/23/opinion/23gates.html This was met by a large number of rebuttals. Here’s just one: http://racerelations.about.com/b/2010/04/26/henry-louis-gates-wants-reparations-activists-to-consider-african-role-in-slave-trade.htm

    • Thanks Chris…But don’t get me wrong, I read the Gates piece. I just disagree with it, as do numerous other scholars. The complicity of Africans who, in all likelyhood, remained on the African continent, does not negate the victimhood of the slaves who were brought here. Nevertheless, as slavery continued for generations, I don’t think the argument holds much weight.

      There are always, and have always been, two sides to this debate, but I fall on the side of at least bringing the damn discussion to the table.

  9. With racism and ethnic violence so prevalent throughout the world that most cases hardly make the back pages of newspapers, it is unfortunate to see the writer slavishly adapting the tired slogans of the Israel bashers.

    In recent weeks vicious ethnic strife took place in Kyrgystan that caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people (with, miraculously “only” 300 people killed, many of them burned to death when their houses were set on fire). And of course there have been many lives lost in the violence in Nigeria. All of which allowed Turkey, the doyen of hypoctites, to bomb and kill hundreds of Kurdish opponents while no-one’s watching.

    I refer you to an article that appeared recently in Foreign Policy. Essential reading for those who care about human rights.
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/06/21/the_worst_of_the_worst
    It detailed the 24 worst dictators in the world and what they have wrought upon their populations. No Israeli leaders on that list, damn it.

    On request I will be happy to provide video clips of Hamas statements, out of the mouths of their leaders.

    Jonathan Goldberg

    • Are you kidding? A brief mention of Israel in this blog post and you glom onto it with your tired hasbara? No thanks.

    • foobar@mailinator.com

      July 12, 2010 at 2:13 pm

      Foreign Policy is a magazine about well “policy” and is by no means a non-partisan voice.

      Foreign Policy is also known for their hatchet jobs. Listing Hugo Chavez there who was democratically elected while skimming over the facts makes me doubt the piece integrity.

      http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/06/21/the_worst_of_the_worst?page=0,17

      They certainly did not base the piece on any measurable metrics. Measurable metrics would include things like:

      * Change in literacy levels
      * Change in life expectancy for the population
      * Change in wealth for the population
      * [Top,Bottom] differences
      * Human right abuses reported
      * Number of times the UN Security Council had to debate a problem in the given country
      * Number of political prisoners
      * Percentage of the population in jails
      * Levels of child mortality

      I would put more trust in GapMinder.com that looks at some of the economical and population indicators based on actual data than the political direction that a policy magazine has.

    • Simply beside the point !

  10. Your “no thanks” to my offer to provide information clearly reveals a refusal to receive any information that contradicts your pre-set ideas. Your use of the Hebrew word for PR “(tired hasbara”) is a not-very-subtle way of daubing me as an Israeli without knowing if that is the case. I didn’t offer to give you any information from Israeli sources. I offered to send you a clip showing the top leaders of Hamas and the words that have come out of their mouths. Of course if you wanted to contest the authenticity of that clip, after examining it, that would be legitimate and we could take it from there. But to dismiss something you have not seen is not exactly the mark of a scholar/intellectual/expert, all the things you obviously fancy yourself to be. I apologize for having made a statement that doesn”t jibe with your views. I’m sure you too think Chavez is a defender of human rights – and Gaddafi for that matter too. After all he’s sponsoring the next flotilla to Gaza, so that makes him a freedom fighter. When his son attempted to throw a servant from a hotel window in Switzerland and was arrested, Gaddafi cliamed diplomatic immunity. Even Chavez and his family haven’t acted that way – yet.

    As to my glomming on to that subject, you entirely missed the point. But skip it.

    At first I thought that picture of you on your back was ridiculous, but on second thoughts, the topsy-turvy posture matches the views exprsssed.

    I solemnly promise not to intrude into your scholarly rantings by writing on uour blog.

    • Jonathan,

      Well, apologies for throwing around the term “hasbara,” but your comment so closely resembled the hundreds of others I’ve received saying almost exactly the same thing that I just assumed. Incidentally, I didn’t assume you were Israeli, I assumed you were a Zionist, which is not that far-fetched considering you dropped onto a post about American nationalism and left a comment about Hamas, AND called me an Israel basher. See where I’m going with this?

      Second, you assumed that I knew nothing about Hamas, or that I even supported them. After all, why would you feel the need to send me clips of their leaders unless you a) thought I hadn’t heard it already and b) thought I support Hamas in some way without having heard such filth. Well, Jonathan, you’re wrong on both counts. But what you seem to fail to see here is that one can hate Hamas and realize that Israel is responsible for 62 years of Palestinian suffering. One can hate Islam, for that matter, and still realize that Israelis have no right to occupy the West Bank and continue the brutal siege on Gaza. Incredible, isn’t it?

      So no, Jonathan, I don’t think Hamas is good for Palestinians, I don’t think Gaddafi or Chavez are good leaders, or that every flotilla should be supported. I mean, seriously Jonathan, are you that daft?

      You still say I missed your point…Well, please enlighten me. I mean, from what I can see, you jumped onto a non-scholarly, rather introspective post about my feelings on American nationalism, saw one example that I chose to make about Israel (sure, I could’ve made it about Kyrgyzstan or the DRC, but my country doesn’t send my tax dollars to them for weapons), and decided to leave a long-winded comment full of what sounds exactly like Israeli PR (hasbara). I don’t see what there is for me to “get.”

      As for the photo, well, I’ll have to agree with you. It’s utterly stupid, but I haven’t found a better one that fits the color scheme.

      Best,
      Jillian

  11. I will be happy to address all your points but I would need space for that. I don’t want to hog the space on your blog. Can you provide readers with a link, for the convenience of those readers (if there are any) who want to take the time to hear my views and my conclusion that people like yourself, however well intentioned, actually do a disservice to down-trodden people throughout the world. I assume that most readers will take a pass on that exposition, which may threaten their cosy, feel-good positions, so we could save them the bother of even having to page through that.

    Let me make just one comment at this moment: I made reference to an article in Foreign Policy listing the abuses of 24 heads of State. I believe that few serious people would question that Mugabi, Kim Jong Il, Than Shwe, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir and their ilk are the scourge of mankind, responsible not only for torture and killings but famines, starvation and you name it. With modern technology they are able to perform greater crimes, collectively, than Hitler did. So what was the response I read on your blog? Foreign Policy is prejudiced. Nothing as convenient as killing the messenger. Dear readers, you don’t have to believe much less read Foreign Policy to know that. Saying Hugo Chavez is a great guy is about a pusillanimous way to deny and avoid the problem of man’s humanity to man. But such denial is not worth debating, is it? Let’s just keep pretending the Israelis have a monopoly on denial. I have not given your blog a hard look but if that’s the kind of reader it attracts, then I will be looking elsewhere for scholarly analysis. Meanwhile, Robert, Omar and you others, keep at it – no-one is watching what you’re doing. We have our hands full discussing the situation in Gaza.
    Jonathan Goldberg

    • Ah yes, judge a blog by its comments. Do you realize how ludicrous that is? I don’t moderate (I reserve the right to, but only have once or twice), and on a good day, have around 1,000 readers. Some comment elsewhere instead.

      I read Foreign Policy’s article and don’t find fault in it, aside from its sensationalistic gossip rag tone (“general coconut heads,” seriously?). I agree with you, frankly, but again: my country supports Israel more than it does any of those 24 states, financially, politically, and otherwise. That means I can organize within my country–where I am most useful–to help bring about justice through democracy. Does it get more American than that?

      That said, Jonathan, let me ask: What are YOU doing? Are you helping North Koreans? Burmese? Sudanese? I wish I could, but I’m not sure there’s much I could do beyond donating to certain organizations (which I do, often) and sharing links/helping educate (which I do, when I know enough about the subject to help). Aside from that, I will continue to focus my time where I’m most useful, as one should. Much of the rest of my time is focused on Internet freedom.

      Interestingly, you don’t seem to deny that Israel is doing wrong, you just think I should focus my time on places that you deem more desperate, because you read an article in FP.

  12. I meant “man’s inhumanity to man”

  13. I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

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