“Do we want America to continue to be exceptional, the single greatest nation on Earth, or do we want her to become just like everybody else?”
“All political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”
I am not proud to be an American.
I realize that with this admission any future involvement I might have in politics will be accompanied by incessant accusations of my lack of patriotism and my apparent communist/socialist/fascist/Marxist/Maoist leanings. (The popularity of such epithets is rivaled only by their users’ ignorance of history.) A simple analysis of the reactions elicited from entirely reasonable public statements illustrates the hair-trigger response of politicians, pundits, and the public when they hear anything but the most fervent pro-Americanism.
When asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This, of course, prompted a general outcry once Americans learned that other nations had stolen the concept of patriotism. Forbes columnist Mallory Factor disparaged Obama for “favor[ing] global summits in which we participate humbly among large groups of the world’s nations.” Glenn Beck quoted the Jerusalem Post as saying that Obama had “reject[ed] the American creed.” A discussion of what exactly Obama meant by his comment was all over the airwaves.
I won’t claim to speak for the president, but I viewed his comment as tremendously refreshing, a faint spark of practical bluntness in a political machine that has perfected its method for churning out carefully calculated, easily swallowed morsels of ethos-appealing nationalistic sentiment. It’s a strategy used by both sides, probably because it works really well. It’s difficult to plot the trajectory of a candidate’s budget plan if you’ve never taken an economics class. But it’s easy to listen to a speech listing the various virtues you embody simply by being born within U.S. borders. You don’t need to work hard—as an American, you already do. You don’t need to strive for magnanimity—as an American, you already have it.
I am, of course, comfortable in America, more so than I would be in another culture. It’s perfectly natural for people to feel most at home in, well, their home. But claiming a natural sense of familiarity as “pride” obscures the meaning of that very word. You take pride in something because you or someone you know worked for it. Should I become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, I’ll take pride in my profession knowing that my career was a privilege I’d earned through years of hard work. Mothers and fathers take pride in their children’s accomplishments, understanding the effort their sons and daughters put toward pursuing their passions. But to U.S. natives, simply being American says nothing of your character or labor. For the immigrants who spend years saving up for plane tickets to New York and spend over a decade more working toward citizenship, “being American” is rightfully a badge that inspires tremendous pride. For the rest of us, such a claim carries less substance.
I have no quarrel with those who are proud of America, at least the aspects of our country that deserve praise. Indeed, I count myself among their ranks. The solidarity that comes with sharing a common history, culture and array of idiosyncrasies benefits any nation immensely. Too often, though, society strengthens this bond by sacrificing all vestiges of objectivity. As Orwell predicted, the best facets of the nation morph into the innate characteristics of the citizens themselves, and the worst aspects of the country are soon forgotten. We gleefully overlook the numerous dark moments that cast a shadow over our history and the unsightly motifs that remain painfully present, painting over the fascinating subtleties and relationships between America and the world with a much simpler message: “WE’RE NUMBER ONE!”