The wisest patriot I know brought this article from the Atlantic to my attention, entitled “Why Many Americans Are Averse to Unironic Expressions of Patriotism.” Never mind the over-qualification by use of adjectives, I suspect in an attempt to not offend anyone by appearing to make too blanket of a statement. I am one of these Americans. American patriotism makes me squirm. Why?
I wasn’t born in this country. I was born an American, by way of my mother’s citizenship, but I was born in Canada. The Canada of my upbringing was a humble, mellow place that seemed to be OK with living quietly in the shadow of the big brother to the south. The backlash of Canadian patriotism that grew out of a beer commercial into a way to provide Canadians with a sense of identity separate from America happened after I left. I didn’t grow up believing that I lived in the greatest nation on earth, but rather that I lived in a great nation, and that other great nations existed. I understood that America was powerful, but I didn’t understand how powerful until I moved here as an adult. The best way I can describe my idea of patriotism to this point might be that I thought of nations like people. I thought that if a nation was going to get along in the world, it ought to be humble, aware of its faults as well as its strengths, and be willing to admit when it was wrong.
The thing that pushed me past slight embarrassment at overt displays of patriotism to downright discomfort and even fear was the huge swell of patriotic expression after September 11th. I saw those expressions so closely related to suspicion of anything or anyone foreign, and I grew mistrustful of those who made them. When I heard “God Bless America,” I heard a whispered “burn in hell anyone from anywhere else” tacked on the end. I still hear it, though I chastise myself for my own closed-minded-ness when I do.
I’m beginning to understand some things that are making me more comfortable with expressions of American patriotism. One, this is a great country, with a unique, nuanced and difficult role to play in the world, a role which I still understand very little about. Two, it might not be practical for a nation to behave like a person in quite the way that I expected in order to survive in this world, though this one I’m still not sure about either. Three, the flag-waving and jingoistic speech-making that might be used to entice the less informed to support a particular side in a debate is not patriotism, and does not make honest expressions of patriotism wrong.
So I roll my eyes less, and I look for the honest and the wise lovers of this country, past and present, to teach me what it really means to be a patriot.