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.