Sunday, July 4, 2010

What, to me, is the fourth of July?

This post may raise some potentially controversial (even sensitive) points, but please hear me out before rushing to judge (or comment).

A friend of mine posted this on facebook this morning: "Patriotism, like racism, is firmly rooted in the creation of an Other based almost solely on the demographic vagaries of birth. And like racism, patriotism requires a sense of greater moral duty to one group of people than another."

I've been mulling over his point every since. While this particular friend has been known to post things solely for the purpose of getting a rise out of people, I think in this instance he's sincere about this (since this post has been followed by others with a similar theme).

And I have to admit, I am myself a little ambivalent about the Fourth of July. Do I enjoy the fireworks, bar-be-ques, gatherings with friends? Of course I do. Am I grateful to live in America? Yes. But some of the patriotic rhetoric makes me squirm, and I'm not entirely sure whether or not I'd call myself a patriot.

Although I wouldn't go so far as to equate patriotism with racism (what my friend calls "patriotism" I would actually term "jingoism," a more extreme and unpleasant version of patriotism), I can't help reflecting on the arbitrary nature of nationality. Most of us are born into a particular nationality--it's not something we choose. (For those who do choose their nationality, of course, patriotism becomes a whole different issue). Why, then, do we take such inherent pride in something that we had no control over? Worse than the pride, though, is the tendency of some to take the idea that national pride means national superiority, and this, to me, seems ridiculous, even dangerous. Why should we be better than anyone else because we were fortunate to live in a relatively wealthy, relatively democratic state? What we should be, I think, is grateful. But too often, people use patriotism as a pretext and justification for prejudice. Americans are by no means the only people guilty of this, but the relatively wide-spread nature of this tendency is no excuse for doing it.

(As a side note, I sometimes see this tendency among members of my church as well, to assume that because we have access to "truth," we are somehow better than those who do not. This is patently false; any access we might have to truth merely requires us to live according to standards that are that much higher--it doesn't give us any moral bragging rights unless we actually live up to those standards, in which case, we wouldn't *want* to have those bragging rights.)

I also struggle sometimes with the kinds of language we use to celebrate America. While I do think that the founders were divinely led, that doesn't blind me to the fact that not all of the founding fathers were perfect (they were human, after all!)--they created a government that denied democratic participation to a majority of men (initially, only land-holding white men could vote--this excluded blacks, Native Americans, even lower-class whites) and all women. Our history, too, is hardly without blemish. When we use rhetoric that glosses over (or worse, completely ignores) the truth of our flawed past, it makes me uncomfortable. (For a profound antidote to the kind of rhetoric that gets tossed about on the fourth of July, read Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"--a fourth of July oration he was asked to give, in which he meditates on the cognitive dissonance that the celebration of "Independence" creates in a former slave. In it, he also suggests that American governmental officials were in many ways perpetuating the same type of injustices in condoning slavery that provoked the colonies to rebellion in the first place)

However, I have to acknowledge that there's more to the fourth of July than self-congratulatory rhetoric. I also have to admit that some of the rhetorical stances come from the nature of the rhetorical situation: fourth of July speeches (like toasts at weddings, obituaries, and other celebratory rhetorics), these speeches are a kind of epideictic rhetoric. And it's not really in the nature of any epideictic genre to dwell on the negatives (even State of the Union addresses, if they admit to difficulties, tend to gloss over them to focus on the positive and affirm progress), so it's perhaps not really fair of me to expect more of fourth of July speeches.

I'm also reminded of John Bodnar's Remaking America (which I read for a graduate course on public memory), where he argues that how Americans "remember" America (and by America, I mean of course the United States--language which in and of itself reveals something about my own prejudices) is a highly fraught, contested thing. Essentially, he sees this conflict over memory taking place between "official" memories (government and other vested interests) and "vernacular" memories (more local, not always in harmony with official accounts). For Bodnar, this contest is particularly clear in fourth of July celebrations, where local communities (and individuals) don't always celebrate national narratives in expected ways. So perhaps, in celebrating at all, we open up occasions for discussions that can lead to revisions of national narratives. Perhaps. (I admit I'm a skeptic, but I have done enough research on counter-memories to know that counter memories can often be surprisingly resilient and show up in unexpected ways in unexpected places).

I also find myself wondering if it's possible to separate the idea of love for one's country from the kind of destructive pride that extremes of patriotism can lead to. Because I have to admit that, when I think about many of the communities and landscapes I've known in America, I love them--and a part of me *is* proud to know that I can claim association with them. And certainly, there is much to admire here: freedom of worship, freedom of expression, countless stories of heroism and selflessness among members of the armed forces. (Please don't make the mistake of thinking that because I don't think America is perfect that I count those sacrifices lightly.)

In the end, I think I'm most comfortable with an analogy that likens one's country to one's family--you may not get to choose who they are (just as you may not get to choose your nationality), but you can learn to love them, flaws and all. After all, recognizing the flaws in one's family usually doesn't inhibit our ability to love them--why can't we do the same with our country? We also usually take a few days each year to celebrate our family members (birthdays, Mother's Day, Father's Day)--and the fact that we choose to focus on their positives on these particular occasions doesn't mean we perceive our loved ones blindly. I can accept the idea of the fourth of July as a kind of Mother's Day for our country, a day when we reflect with gratitude on the good things we have available to us.

However, like all analogies, this one is not quite perfect. Where it's generally not considered a good idea to meddle with the perceived faults in our loved ones, we have a civic duty (both a religious and secular one) to work towards improving the faults in our country. My fear is that once we begin to say with too much confidence that America is the best place on earth, we've already begun to lose moral ground (just as when one begins to boast of personal righteousness, one is most vulnerable). Rather, I think we can take this one day to celebrate the strengths of America, but then we should move on to tackle the weaknesses in our homes, our communities and our nation, not letting our affection for our country blind ourselves to the fact that it is not yet what it could be.

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