Thursday, July 4, 2013

On being proud to be an American

CNN writes about a Gallup poll asking Americans how proud they are to be American.
According to the poll, 57% of adult Americans are "extremely proud" and 28% are "very proud." In addition, 10% say they are "moderately proud," with 3% saying they are "only a little proud" and a mere 1% saying they are "not at all proud."
I suppose it's a bit like asking people how often they go to church, or if they believe in God. It's a way to track something about the national pulse.

The comparison really isn't far off, if you think about it historically. Peoples and nations have always been tied to their religions, whether they had one or many gods. The Roman Empire sought to unite a whole host of peoples with their many different religions. That was fine, so long as they bowed the emperor; thus God was replaced by Caesar.

We do the same thing today. Every nation is basically a religion, complete with its own mythology. I've become especially aware of this living in Europe, where national identity is a rather touchy issue, and constructing a European identity seems to be happening slowly with lots of bumps in the road. Each country needs a national mythology if they're going to unite the people together. You can't teach American history in American schools unless there's such a thing as the American people. Sure, you can always acknowledge division where it existed, as long as you don't break the basic rhythm of the story: one nation, one people.

America is unique in that we created a nation. Our creation myth is one in which our founding fathers--mere mortals!--are the creators. It's a little bit like Rome. You can worship whatever you want, as long as you're happy with what those guys built.

Still, I'm happy we don't have to bow to anyone. That is a real difference. Americans may have a cult of presidential worship, and we may often be patriotic to a fault, but we know we're not supposed to bow before another human being. I think that's a good thing.

I'm happy to be an American. If I had to answer one of those silly Gallup questions, I would even say I'm "very proud." But I rest very certain that nationalism should be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, we need to recognize that "I am proud to be an American" has many traits in common with a religious refrain: we are taught to repeat it regularly, we feel joy because of it, it instills confidence, it unites us in a common purpose, and so on. And I guess all of that is okay, I'm just not quite ready to sing, "Praise America from whom all blessings flow."

Americans probably need to be reminded more than anyone else that the value of a nation is all relative. Nations continue to come and go, or at the very least evolve. Ours isn't any different. Perhaps what makes American nationalism so strong is that from an occidental perspective, we are perhaps the oldest "modern republic." There's something to be said for that. Then again, maybe the age of the modern republic won't last forever.

I'm thinking very, very long term, of course. Still, in the short run, it would probably help us to act more morally if we toned down some of our national pride. I think in particular about our foreign policy and some of the immigration issues we have, and I think a lot could be fixed by changing our stance toward politics from one of trying to save America (or the world through America) to a simple, humble search for justice. Whether it's our respect for individuals rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or the belief in "liberté, égalité, fraternité," every nation knows deep down what are the basic principles of justice. Perserving the United States of America at all costs is not one of those fundamental principles common to all humankind.

Happy Independence Day.

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