The Fourth of July seems an appropriate time for a display of patriotism, and a discussion of what it means. So a few thoughts follow.
One of the principle things of value I get out of Facebook membership is its utility as a social barometer for certain mass moments. Today, a prevailing theme is something like “yay for America, but this year feels a little off.”
So let me state up front that I get it; in fact, there’s a decent chance that when I get off the plane in Norfolk next month (!), my first reaction will be to drop to my knees a la Charleton Heston and start moaning, “They finally, really did it. You maniacs!” I mean, it’s not likely, but I can’t rule it out. After all, I’m part of the 13 percent.
What bugs me is cheap nationalism dressed up as patriotism. In this sense, I define nationalism as basically a form of fandom. I grew up rooting for the San Francisco Giants for the same reason the Wolverines fight the Soviets in Red Dawn – “because we live here!” But that’s not really a good reason. The Giants have no intrinsic superiority over any other Major League Baseball team; nor, in this sense, does any country over any other. Everyone is from somewhere. Everyone has a team. Rooting for the U.S. Olympic team is fun but not really meaningful in any deeper sense.
I don’t want to speak for the deceased, but I think the following statement is correct: My grandfather loved Portugal, its culture and language, because it was where he was from; but he loved America because it represented the idea of what he wanted to be.
The United States didn’t grow up with a fixed territory. Due to the unique circumstances of its founding, there was room to expand, and the notion of being an American was never dependent upon soil. It was based on ideas – ideas written by philosophers and statesmen and soldiers whose freakishly high concentration at that single time and place led to the most revolutionary event in modern history. The Declaration of Independence, followed by the U.S. Constitution, encapsulate why the United States is different. It is based not on shared circumstances of birth and territory, but on ideas and concepts accessible to anybody. There were a great many reasons for the U.S. to be a magnet for immigrants, but at or near the top is the notion that any immigrant can freely espouse these ideas just as much as a native-born citizen.
When I used to work weekly naturalization ceremonies for Sailors, a new citizen asked me if he could vote even though he was in the military. I told him yes, and he was genuinely surprised. What we do just isn’t normal in most of the world! And I mean that in the best of ways.
Which is the point – American Exceptionalism is real. There is no shame in saying so. The United States, based on its founding ideas, its continuing struggle to live up to them, and its attraction to people across the globe, really is a singular, indispensable force for good in the world. Other countries are great powers, or could be, because they have large militaries or occupy a strategic spot. But their histories irretrievably bind them, tying them to that spot, to that blood and soil. Even the mother of modern liberty, the United Kingdom, will always largely be based on the native population of its islands, and the fact that they live there. The United States, though, exists for fundamentally different reasons. And anyone can join.
Immigrants know why they come here – the reasons vary, but ultimately America is a better option than wherever they came from. To use my Portuguese example, it was not a very good place for most of the Twentieth Century. My great-grandparents knew what they were doing by packing up their family and leaving.
It’s immigrants’ children and, by extension, anyone born in the U.S., who must be reminded of those reasons, lest we forget. The American Project is a project of continuing education to successive generations. Textbooks and teachers that continually harp on racism and labor strife and suffragettes may not be wrong on the facts, but they sure are on the lessons. Yes, let’s paint the whole picture; yes, let’s state the U.S. has often failed to live up to its founding principles; but let us acknowledge it’s done a better job of trying than any other country in world history. You are hundreds of times wealthier than your ancestors of 1775, and, wherever you are in the world, it is largely the result of changes unleashed by the United States to the benefit of all. And, for all our faults today, compared to the global tumult present in the news right now, I’m still betting on the U.S. to set the example in the coming century, too.
But to get there, the above statements need to be part of a common understanding among our many people. The United States is the world’s third most-populous country, with nearly a third of a billion people within its borders, and across all the various subcultures and communities there’s got to be something holding the whole mess together. Moral equivalence and tribalism aren’t going to do it. The intentional divvying up of Americans by the demographic boxes they check will only harm us. Identity politics brings death in its wake – large polyglot polities like the Austro-Hungarian Empire have tended not to have good endings, and the U.S. is notable for having survived as well as it has, largely because we’ve been able to get most people on the same page as a result of universally-accessible founding principles. Let’s acknowledge real problems, but at the same time acknowledge we have the structures to solve them without tearing everything down.
We have been given so much, but compared to prior generations have earned so little. Patriotism is to acknowledge as much. Patriotism is to make changes at the margins while preserving the time-tested ideals and institutions that got us this far. Patriotism is to teach these values to our children. For these values are not simply “the way Americans do things,” as their Portuguese equivalents might be – they are the last, best hope of our fallen world. And their loss would not be just a North American one; it would be a failure for all humanity.
So let’s start here:
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Happy Independence Day!