Curb Your Patriotism
Hanging out with a few friends this past Sunday, waiting for the Super Bowl to start, I was slightly surprised when Leslie Odom Jr. was introduced to sing “America the Beautiful” (to precede Pink singing the national anthem). I should not have been; the Super Bowl is the largest athletic stage in the US and after living here for 22 years, I should probably recognize that a larger stage is generally accompanied by a more patriotic presence. I muttered something sarcastic, to which one of my friends, likely tired of my liberal hullabaloo (I can’t blame her), replied, “Why does it matter?”
It’s a fair question. I’ve struggled to articulate my discomfort with similar proceedings for most of my life. High school was the first time I questioned how pledging allegiance to my country first thing in the morning was in any way relevant to my education. When I came to North Carolina (having lived in Connecticut), I was startled by how many people sing along during the national anthem at sporting events.
I first began to understand where these feelings stemmed from while watching President Obama’s farewell address last year. I was watching with my roommate, a British exchange student who had just arrived in the US. When Obama inevitably spoke the words “God bless America,” he asked me how I felt about the prevalence of statements like that by American politicians. I was a little thrown off. Nobody had ever asked me about that before; it is a practice so widely accepted in the US that most of us probably don’t think about it. I asked him, “Don’t British politicians do the same thing?” He responded, “Not really, what you think of as patriotism, we think of as nationalism.”
That’s when it first clicked for me. Most people in other countries, especially in Europe, are wary of patriotic rhetoric because there is such a fine line between patriotism and nationalism. This notion was reinforced by a friend from Germany I made this past August. He told me that when German teens and 20-somethings waved German flags after their World Cup victory over Argentina in 2014, older generations scorned them. They remembered the rise of the Nazis, or had heard stories from their parents, and they had a genuine fear of the potential consequences that could result from these sentiments.
I’m not advocating removing all national pride from our lives. I get excited when the US performs well in the Olympics like everyone else does. I get chills when I hear stories of bravery from the men and women in our armed forces. The point I’m trying to make is that there should be a time and a place for patriotism. It doesn’t need to penetrate every aspect of our lives. Do we really need to ask our students to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning? Do we really need to have not one, but two, songs glorifying our country performed at, of all places, a sporting event?
It seems to me that all these common practices serve to do is reinforce the idea that the US is this blessed nation, ordained by God to lead the world towards safety and prosperity, and that to question the manner in which it chooses to do this is to question morality itself. After all, if we are “one nation under God,” who are we as human beings to doubt the path on which God has chosen to lead us?
We claim to be a free, democratic society, but if we are asking five-year-olds to pledge allegiance to their nation every day until they’re 18, does that not inherently foster feelings that dissent against the government’s foreign policies is, at the very least, to be frowned upon? Does it not make it more difficult for citizens to feel comfortable speaking up when US actions are wrong? (By the way, we’re wrong a lot; I’ll refrain from touching on current events due to their subjectivity, but note slavery, Japanese internment, and McCarthyism as just three examples of times US policy allowed blatant wrongdoing.)
The US often stands for what is right, but not all the time. That’s an objective truth. If the constant exaltation of our country in every aspect of our lives in any way discourages us from standing up for the people of other nations when our foreign policies are wrong, then we need to seriously consider dialing it back.
The context in which this piece is being written is obviously pertinent. President Trump reveres authoritarians and is a threat to the institutions that keep our democracy intact (DOJ, FBI, etc.). I recently heard a political commentator correctly state that our democratic institutions will not protect us, but rather, that it is our responsibility to protect our institutions. Democracy is never a given, even in the US, and if you don’t think Trump has been trending towards undermining our democracy, you simply haven’t paid attention.
Trump’s message of “America First” appealed to a lot of people. Implicit in this message is the idea that Americans deserve more than non-Americans because we are American. The presidency is the most influential position in the world and if policies of the holder of this position are to benefit Americans at the expense of others, people from all countries, “sh*thole” or otherwise, are likely to be affected.
I fear that the incessant encouragement of patriotism present in our nation today has made us less sympathetic to the struggles of people from other countries. Of course, our leaders should have the interests of American people in mind. In fact, this should be their top priority. But a large portion of our country seems to accept a president whose actions are a legitimate threat to our democracy as long as he cares about “us” more than he cares about the “others.” I can’t help but think part of that feeling of American entitlement stems from some of the patriotic practices we have all tacitly accepted as commonplace, even though they are rare in many other countries.
I am reminded of my friend from Germany. His parents’ parents remembered a time when people had such intense feelings of being left behind, to the benefit of those perceived as outsiders, that they willfully handed virtually unchecked power over to a man who ultimately carried out one of the most horrific genocides in human history.