My Personal Struggle to Grapple with the Concepts of American-ness and Patriotism

For those that know me, you know that the concepts of patriotism and American-ness are not ones that I have been very comfortable with.  Of course, as a youth, I was proud of my country. Once when I was in 6th grade or so, I told an uncle that I was always inspired whenever I heard one song or another about the beauty of our nation and I asked if he felt the same way—his response, a simple no followed by mutterings about taxes. I won’t say I was stunned by this but it does seem to me now a catalyst for the cynicism one expects to eventually see in a soon to be teenager, you know the type—they barely know anything but think they know everything and judge the world with harsh eyes than they themselves would wither under and deem unfair if redirected at themselves. And I have to admit, I was probably worse than most because mine wasn’t just the natural cynicism of a teen but the cynical nature fed by a love of radical political hardcore and punk bands such as the Dead Kennedy’s, Propagandhi, the Crass, Billy Bragg, Anti-Flag, the Sub-humans and more. From them I began reading great authors such as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Emma Goldman, whose critique of American policies can probably never be overstated. I never hated my country but I was all too aware of past and present flaws to ever comfortably believe in patriotism as a good thing. On this 4th of July, I now find myself looking inward and inquiring why that was and why it no longer is such an issue.

I can already hear my old college buddy Jacquie and probably Professor Stacey, whom I spent a year or so doing independent research for, asking, “What? Scott it sounds like you are going to admit that you are no longer a citizen of Pangaea…that you now see yourself as purely an American…is that so? And to that I say no…sorta.

For those of you that are not familiar with the idea of Pangaea, it is the name given to the continents when they were all merged as one, before they split apart to form the continents we know today. My belief for well over a decade has always been that I do not understand why I should have more compassion for someone who lives in say Peoria, IL than I do for someone that lives in Negambo, Sri Lanka. I know no one who lives in either place and I have been to neither. And yet were a natural disaster to befall them both, by deign of my birth I am supposed to have a greater amount of respect and concern for those that live in the artificial borders that make up the United States. That idea has always made me uncomfortable and that has been a significant reason why I have tended to oppose any war that is not an absolute necessity—when we bomb another country I look at those people as being innocents who may as well live in Boulder, CO and despite my opposition to favoritism, I know that I would instinctively oppose bombing innocents in my own country no matter the justification. So why accept the bombing of innocents elsewhere?

I also never quite understood the idea that I was American. When I lived in Virginia, I certainly didn’t have a special relationship with the state. I rarely would have defined myself as a Virginian and certainly not a Fairfaxian (I lived in Fairfax). My living in Fairfax, VA did not mean that I did not care about people in Miami, FL where I had never been and knew no one so why should my living in America make me less concerned with people in another country? Why are the people in my country inherently more important to me?

So has that changed? Do I still consider myself a citizen of Pangaea i.e. a global citizen and the answer is—yes but I have now also internalized what I think it means to be an American along with that.

I have come to see America as a state of mind not a nation with manmade borders surrounding people who have no common racial, ethnic, or religious bond. That state of mind is what binds us together—the belief in the America philosophy is what makes our nation radically different from many other more homogenous nations. American-ness is a set of actions and attitudes, not a nationality devoted to reflexive loyalty to a government. This state of mind has no national boundaries, when the Iranians were marching in opposition against the outcome of the recent election, they acted like members of America, when Tibetans face down their Chinese oppressors, they are acting like Americans.

Not Americans the people but American-ness the philosophy of liberty and equality. A philosophy that is not static point instead it comes from a rigorous psychodynamic process that imposes a continued personal challenge. It does not belong merely to those lucky enough to have been born within certain borders but to all people who wish to cross their own personal Rubicon of self discovery. That is one of the main reasons America has always been an immigrant nation, because we recognize that it is not where you are born that makes you American, it is where your heart and mind has gone.

As author Naomi Wolf stated, “America is a psychology of freedom—one of expansiveness, trust of self and hope. It is a consciousness of limitless inquiry.” It is this psychology that has become the foundation for my new found patriotism which I hold to be a far different concept than nationalism which comes with tinges of demagoguery and derisive attitudes towards other nations. Patriotism, at least for me, has mostly to do with the ideals planted in our own radical history.

And here it comes, I can already hear people, especially my friends who know me best saying this: But America is not perfect and the founders themselves did not live up to their own ideals of liberty and freedom. And to that I say, you are correct…but—let’s take a closer look.

It cannot be disputed that our founding fathers and the Constitution both have faults, but essence of liberty and equality within their ideas—though imperfectly implemented also came with the power to correct contradictions. We were not given liberty or freedom as a gift to put on display whenever the 4th of July roles around but to craft an ever more broadening and all-encompassing form of liberty. We may have been given the seeds of liberty and freedom but it has ever been up to us to spread that seed and help it grow until all are included.

One has to accept that human beings are improvable, that our founding fathers imperfections and the imperfection of the documents they wrote contained beliefs that were in essence perfect enough for us to constantly strive to implement them. Yes, they owned slaves, didn’t let women vote, heck didn’t let non-land-owning white males vote, etc. but their imperfect characters and actions still drafted a transformative blue print that has radically changed the way freedom is perceived in the world and has allowed for many nations, ours included, to continually strive to achieve the ideal. That is American-ness—an idea of inclusiveness and freedom that belongs to no nation and no people except perhaps the citizens of Pangaea.

American-ness as a philosophy has been far easier for me to accept than the concept of patriotism which as I noted above is far different from nationalism, and yet, as I grew up I noticed that people tended to behave two ways when asked about patriotism—on the right they oversentimentalized it and on the left they disdained it. And I eventually came to wonder…why? Why have we branded patriotism as merely a belief readily espoused and supported by those right of center?

As I grew up I began to patriotism meaning that a patriot had to show uncritical support of US policies at home and especially abroad. In fact, worse than uncritical support it seems to have become ensnarled with vociferous attacks on those that criticize the country. So common are these definitions within Americas psyche that I doubt a reader of this blog hasn’t seen a bumper stick that has said “Love it of Leave it.” This brand of patriotism foster a blind loyalty coupled with an innate sense of superiority which brings it all too close to nationalism.
 
According to Naomi Wolf, “This form of patriotism evokes a belief that America is always and always will be a special and “saved” nation” but America is not always anything except always in need of facing ourselves in our own mirrors to see what needs fixing. It doesn’t mean you cannot love what you see, it merely means that your love should not blind you to seeing what else can be done to make it better. As Naomi Wolf wrote, “American-ness and patriotism are not a smug legacy of entitlement but a universal challenge that always included a demand for self correction.”

There is no reason to accept our current branding of patriotism; be you on the right or left or somewhere in between (let’s face it ideas are far more nuanced than the dichotomy of right vs. left) patriotism should be accepted as sacred obligation to take the most serious possible steps and undergo the most serious kinds of personal risks in defense of freedom.

If you read the first line of the Declaration of Independence (you know the line I am talking about…the one detailing our right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”) and I mean really read it you will see that it doesn’t promise you these things, taken as part of the whole document it states that you must be willing to risk everything to obtain these freedoms, that you must be ready for a revolution. Nothing is given. It does not grant us the right to sit back on our lawn chairs and watch fireworks, it demands that we continually participate in issues that go beyond our front doors, beyond our fenced in yards and even beyond our national borders to stand up for freedom everywhere in the world.

So today I openly declare that I am an American and I am a patriot because I believe that everyone across the globe that shares in these ideals are also Americans and when I celebrate I will think of the patriots in far off countries who still struggle to make the freedom they feel in their hearts and soul a reality for their minds and bodies. They may not have been born in nor live in America but the ideals we hold in common make them as much an American as I am and I honor them.

irregulartimes.com/progressiveflag.html
Scott P

80 comments

edward s.
edward s8 years ago

An interesting topic. What is American-ness? You paint a stereotypical picture of finding patriotism ,and admirably advocate freedom and liberty for all. As with all `patriots`you never mention the almost total debt you owe to European culture for the majority of your cultural philosophy.Imention this only because I fear that you believe freedom and liberty are the sole properties of the USA,home-grown and somehow unique.It is likely that the USA with its large self-sufficient land mass is unaware of the rest of the planet, not to mention the ideologies that framed its own democracy.I am sure that Thomas Paine has influenced your life more soundly than Billy Bragg. I admire them both. When the USA addresses some of its own cultural skeletons, perhaps we can accept the jingoism and patriotic outpourings that many imagine counts as citizenship. As that famous Englishman said,"patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". Keep practising the `democracy for all` mantra,when America receives it, let me know.

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Past Member
Past Member 8 years ago

This article is by far, the most intelligent and honest piece of writing I have had the opportunity of reading in over 9 years as a member on this sight. It is gutsy, but anyone who can read Noam Chomsky and still be a patriot is a great American in my books. And that’s just it. Are you going to get yourself educated so you can just regurgitate whatever philosophy they give you, or are you going to be honest and CARE. We might love animals, but we aren’t animals. The pack in the animal kingdom is always more important than the life of one animal. We are human individually we are more important than the group because we each have worth. That is American-ness as Scott put it. That is the difference between being part of a community vs part of a collective. The difference between patriotism and nationalism. We are all fooling ourselves if we think we can be a citizen of Pangaea without first being an individual. We cannot be a part of the human community if we fail to recognize our humanity. What Scott did here is what few intellectuals ever stop and do-THINK. If it feels wrong, if something in your gut is telling you something, investigate it. How can you care about anything unless you’re prepared to look for truth. Wow, I don’t know about you Scott, the wisest men in history were always the most controversial and you sir have opened a can of worms with this one. I wish you good luck, and keep writing and researching. The world needs people w

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Koo J.
greenplanet e8 years ago

I agree 110% Kath, the internet (& world) is international, not US-an. I also agree with Ken and Tony.

Thank you so much for your kind words, too, Kath :)

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Kath W.
Kath W8 years ago

Thank you so much, Tony, Ken and Koo. Ken - you're far from stupid - I think you're an intelligent, THINKING person. Tony - I couldn't agree more, and Koo - well, IMHO you show great insight. I have copied your post to my hard drive (and both Tony's and Ken's posts as well) because it is so eloquent and, to me - TRUE.

Koo - please, PLEASE write some articles or "shares" for Care2. You have so much to say, and I'd love to read more of it.

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Kath W.
Kath W8 years ago

One thing - I thank you Scott, for opening up an interesting discussion thread.

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Kath W.
Kath W8 years ago

To Meredith, who says "since this is America, he can say whatever he wants". I'm sorry, but THIS is NOT America - THIS is the INTERNET, which is INTERNATIONAL. Please try to keep that in mind. And, writers of articles on here are held to a higher standard of writing than commenters, of course! (Grammar, syntax, cohesiveness.)

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Koo J.
greenplanet e8 years ago

I think it's about being (or attempting to be) a good world citizen - and being co-operative with others.

People are emigrating all over the world these days - not just to the US. But obviously everyone in the whole world is not trying to emigrate/immigrate to the US. It's true some may want the "American" capitalist "dream". Some people may be seduced by the shiny, happy image of the US portrayed in US movies and TV programs which remember are beamed all over the globe.

Some may be escaping poverty and violence - some of that poverty may be exacerbated by actions of US-corporations and globaliazion, ironically. Some people may be looking for work, as the economies in their countries are devastated (yes, sometimes by US-corporations and power). People emigrate for all sorts of reasons, and maybe some wouldn't want to, except that the conditions in their countries have become too difficult.

The US is only 4% of the world's population, but takes 25% of the world's resources - so perhaps some people come to where (unfairly) the resources are.

I think we need some humility and to think of people as people.

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Koo J.
greenplanet e8 years ago

I think part of the problem (for me) is that people in the US are brainwashed from birth into thinking that the US is the "greatest", the "best" and everyone, given the chance would be "American" -- which isn't the case.

Other people around the world find the US assumption of superiority offensive, and instead of thinking it over about why that might be, some people in the US get angry and hostile and act like they are offended (how dare anyone question the US!!).

There is a big gap between US rhetoric of "freedom" and "goodness" and the actions of US power which actually curtail and hurt others' freedom and lives. However, blinded by the rhetoric, US-ans don't necessarily know that.

Since the US comes across as oppressive to many people, the co-option of "freedom" as an American trait is not very diplomatic and naturally offends people.

In fact, you can't say whatever you like in the US - at least not in some circles and places. You can't suggest that other countries might have a better health care system or better education system, for instance. It is not "freedom" if one questions even the smallest thing and the implication is that you have to "shut up or leave". In fact, you can have more open conversations in many other places, where it's not such a big deal to criticize govt policies, where people won't automatically want to shout at you or hit you!

Many other democracies are as good as or better than the US.

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Tony S.
Past Member 8 years ago

"when Tibetans face down their Chinese oppressors, they are acting like Americans"....no they're not, they're not acting LIKE anyone, they're actually BEING oppressed people standing up to their oppressors!

Good people do good things because they're good people, not because they're american, or british, or chinese or tibetan.....I THINK that may be something akin to what you're attempting to get across: i.e. there is a state of mind that transcends national identity and links people from all backgrounds through positive activism. To claim it as 'american-ness' does come across as, at the very least, arrogant.....all you can really claim is that some of those people who do some of those things are from the piece of land currently known as america.

You appear to be feeling guilt at slowly becoming assimilated into something (via patriotism, to the state as a whole maybe?), very at odds with the initial inspiration of your radical 'punk' past (it's just Crass btw not 'the' Crass...tut tut ;)

I do urge you to think again about the whole patriot/national pride thing. Patriotism is only ever divisive and as soon as there is a divide between good people, we're easier to conquer. But go ahead, feel pride at the good things people have contributed to the world (we all do); claiming them in the name of a territory though divides, belittles and limits it.

PS - as an old Cr(a)ss fan, read Shibboleth by Jerry Ratter (aka Penny Rimbaud). You may find it enlightening

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Ken G.
Ken G8 years ago

In grocery store I was listening to disgruntled older woman checking me out. She said of the man previous to me, "He's book smart, ain't got a lick of common sense." So to me Scott had a barrier up before he even started with his education. I doubt he even realized that. There's a wall up between us which common ordinary people have to use common sense to survive and actually government is made up of the educated people in society. To us they know everything and have all the answers leaving us feeling stupid. To us living below the poverty level we only have to see the mess not only our country is in but the entire world is in because of what we see as book smart people. Our words aren't that good but to me we live with the basics in life by realizing we only have each other and do the best we can sharing what we have in life instead of hoarding it.
Another part about the basics is relating and relationships, which I consider the United States to be a failure with. Instead of attempting to understand our differences our society led by those we chose to mate with and to lead us, we ignorantly argue and fight about what we believe to be right and for what we consider rights. Human behvior is either control and manipulate or a matter of earning each other's trust and respect. One method is from being insecure and the other is offers security.
Simply put it's time to learn to love more than deal with patriotism.

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