Grounded as I am in coming-of-age during the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, I tend to have a problematic relationship with patriotism and all its accoutrements—the flag, the pledge, the star-spangles, the moist-eyed emotion and breast-beating triumphalism.
In my college years, I learned to cast a skeptical eye on government pronouncements and white-washed histories. I discovered the relevance of sociology (Hmm…sociology, now there’s a thought!), psychology (Oh, what a neurotic-at-best mess we are!), and the role of basic brutality and genocide—there is simply no other way to say it—in subduing the American frontier. All under the cloak of “manifest destiny,” a handy and high-falutin’ term for “God wants us to own all this, so let’s go wipe out another Indian tribe.”
The revisionist look at American history taking place then was only exacerbated by the travesty of Vietnam, when the modern faultlines of today’s political and cultural wars suffered their deepest fissures. Sometime in those years, liberals turned with something close to virulence against what they perceived to be the fraud and hypocrisy of the traditional American narrative, in which God and the American peoples’ special status as his torch-bearers enable them to fight the good fight for truth, beauty and goodness.
Flag-burnings at anti-war protests were among the more potent symbolic expressions of this virulence, a development that allowed conservatives to accuse liberals of “hating” their country. Liberals answered that they actually loved their country enough to try to change it, which was often enough true, but let us be frank: Their words and symbolic actions didn’t always suggest as much. If you could collect a dollar from every liberal in the country who flew a flag in front of his or her home and lustily sang the Star Spangled Banner at ballgames during those years, you wouldn’t budge the needle even a smidge on your net worth.
This aversion to symbols and expressions denoting love of country became an almost standard part of the liberal repertoire over the years. Much like religious liberals who became shy talking about and claiming their faith and its imperatives for fear it would be mistaken for the fulminations of louder and better organized fundamentalists, liberals increasingly ceded the ground of patriotism to conservatives. They became almost embarrassed by any expression of love of country, and skeptical of any positive qualities attributed to it. Too often, they looked for the dark side of any American endeavor, and they always found it, because the dark side is always there, American endeavors being human endeavors, which is to say: flawed, like all humans everywhere.
We are neither special in our purity nor our malevolence, instead holding in common with all nations and all people a mixture of the good and bad, the white knight and dark invader.
Ronald Reagan and his supporters made hay with liberals’ jaundiced views of their mother country and its symbols, citing their persistent criticism of American history and its problems as part of a “blame America first” ethos. And to this degree at least, he was right: Just as many conservatives were and remain rosily deluded in thinking of America and Americans as holding some special place in God’s moral universe, so too were many liberals deluded in thinking that America holds some especially contemptible place therein. We are special neither in our purity nor our malevolence, instead holding in common with all nations and all people a mixture of the good and bad, the white knight and dark invader.
Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Milosevic: none of them Americans, all very good and self-sufficient at harvesting their ideas quite apart from any American influence.
These thoughts have occurred to me in the wake of the most curious recent ambush. Walking past the television where my daughter was watching one of the several cop/crime shows she seems addicted to (I fear she will learn how to be either an FBI agent or a serial killer, neither one an attractive prospect), I beheld a young Indian man (Asian, not Native American) involved in a few rapid-fire scenes that depicted his taking the oath of American citizenship. It was affectingly played against the backdrop of a plotline my daughter later explained to me, but the notable thing was how quickly I stopped in my tracks to witness the scene.
Me, a certified liberal sporting “a problematic relationship with patriotism and all its accoutrements,” finding tears instantly forming in my eyes as this inordinately sincere young man pronounced the oath, waving away the officiant’s “Repeat after me” direction and reciting the oath from memory—proudly, eloquently, with surpassing emotion. You could almost hear the bugles blaring in his heart.
Some of this response likely came from memories of witnessing my own parents taking the oath when I was a young boy. I remember how studiously they pored over their test materials in the months preceding, how proud they were to pass the test and raise their hands in a dank Los Angeles courtroom annex, how conservative they angled politically, paired with and emanating as it did from their fierce anti-communism after their native Hungary was overrun by the Soviet Union in 1956.
Perhaps liberals know too much, have read too much, have not been able to avert their eyes from the stains this country has left upon the soil by way of slavery, the Native American genocide, the squandering of our edenic environment, the frequent support of dictatorships so long as they served our strategic (read: economic) interests.
Or perhaps we are ourselves naïve in thinking the U.S. should be somehow different, somehow above the human propensities to exploit, to seek advantage, to assert a sometimes naked and ruthless will. Perhaps we are in denial of those basic human facts, and thus unable to see the ongoing need for forgiveness of everyone—including ourselves and this country that we by turns excoriate and flourish within.
Perhaps we need to admit more readily that countries (and people) behave badly sometimes, and that fact needs to be understood in a larger context and forgiven for the all-too-human and universal failing that it is.
What I know is that I no longer feel even remotely torn or prone to hives when I see the American flag, I don’t think Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann has any more right to claim love for it than I do, I always take off my hat and hold my hand over my heart while singing along with the national anthem, and that love of country means neither blindness to nor defense of its deficiencies.
Does that make me a patriot?
Jimi Hendrix coaxed his guitar to project all the outrage and pain of the age at the iconic Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Many thanks to the photographers: Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Hamlin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Flag photo near top of page courtesy of DonkeyHotey, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/
Vietnam War protest photo courtesy of the Robert Joyce papers, 1952-1973, in the Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatespecial/
Citizenship oath photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/people/grand_canyon_nps/