Fourth of July is coming up, and I’m faced with my annual question of how to celebrate it. Not what to do, of course. I watch fireworks, eat veggie hot dogs and fit in time to see 1776 either the day before or the day after. What I’m trying to figure out is what the holiday means to me. It’s the birth of my nation, obviously, but how do I feel about that? What does it stir within me? Because when I think about American patriotism, the first thing that comes to mind is Rush Limbaugh talking about how liberals are destroying the greatest nation in the universe, and that’s not really where my head wants to be when I’m celebrating. So I shove patriotism into the back corner of my mind, and try to mindlessly enjoy my non-hot dog.
That approach doesn’t usually go that well. Mindlessly enjoying things isn’t where I usually live. I tend to prefer Overthinking-it-with-peculiar-glee’sville.
In this country, people who talk about loving America usually do it in a way that makes it very hard for me to join in. For one thing, it’s mostly people on the right who do it. The things they say they love about America tend to be deeply rooted in good ol’ white picket fences surrounding heterosexual families with 2.5 kids values.
Rhapsodies on the greatness of our nation tend to either ignore the existence of gay trans men, or point a finger at our kind and accuse us of being out to destroy it. For another, it tends to be deeply invested in seeing America as the greatest nation in the world and the sole promoter of democracy and freedom and apple pie. I look at international statistics about health and education and gun violence, and while we could be doing a lot worse we could also be doing a lot better. Finally, it tends to be couched in highly religious language. It’s one thing to pray for your nation because you personally are both patriotic and religious. I have no problem with that. It’s another thing entirely when someone heartily says “God bless America!” because that’s one of the slogans that everybody says to express patriotic fervor, and I flinch, and then wonder whether it’s more awkward to just let them think I hate my country, or have this be the moment where I out myself as an atheist.
I don’t hate my country. It’s just that I’ve got a sort of conditioned response to wince, for one reason or another, whenever someone starts talking about how much they love America.
I don’t think I have to be religious to care about the place where I live. And I think it’s actually pretty unpatriotic to act as though “I love America” must be equivalent to “I think America is the best place in the world.” Nothing in this world is perfect, and love at it’s best is about accepting the object of love for what it really is now, flaws and all. I love my sister and my best friend and my boyfriend that way. I love the kids I work with and my coworkers and my stories and myself that way. Why shouldn’t I love my country that way? Love that is conditional on the beloved thing being either perfect or better than anything else out there is not love at all. And I very definitely don’t think loving America means being invested on “traditional values” that are actually a pretty recent idea. I think America, like every country and every living civilization and the entire human race, is constantly evolving and loving it isn’t about trying to halt the change and pin it down to one decade, but fervently hope it keeps changing for the better.
1776 is a really great movie, because it makes no attempt to portray the Founding Fathers as perfect, because they weren’t, or as being in accord with their vision of the nation, because they really, really weren’t. It portrays assholes and perverts and slaveholders and lazy fops, it portrays arguments and insults and compromises that we really wish they hadn’t made.
It shows all this, and yet you still love the characters, and you still want them to succeed in putting this rebellion together so we can have a new nation. You can recognize that even in its sloppy execution, at the heart of their mission is a beautiful and revolutionary idea about government and human rights and freedom. You know that when they succeed, they will be a key part of a global movement away from tyranny and towards independence. They will not be the only country casting off the monarchy, but they will be one of most visibly successful examples, and that will change the way the world works.
Even though the reality still fails to resemble the ideal, it has come to resemble it a lot more over the past couple of centuries. I think that’s fantastic, given that in the entirety of human endeavors, that’s the best we have ever done. We suck at being perfect, but we can do pretty well at getting better when we really put our minds to it.
So, I suppose my question was answered all along. I love America, in a “you’re not perfect, but damn, you try as admirably as I could ask for,” kind of way. You go America! Keep up the hard work. I know things look bad now, but they’ve looked bad in the past and you’ve still managed to get better and better. If that isn’t an expression that most people would recognize as American patriotism, so be it. For those whose beliefs and feelings are perfectly summed up by “God Bless America” they are welcome to it. For myself I like this song. That’s what my patriotism looks like, and it’s good enough for me.