In these post 9-11 times, I see many expressions of national pride, everything from bumper stickers, flags and patriotic songs. Skeptic that I am, I wonder exactly what all this pride is about. What did these proud Americans do that makes them so proud?
I am pretty much the same as my fellow Americans. We are all different as individuals but in the larger society little would change in our absence. I look at my life and see that I had little to do with America’s real achievements. I didn’t fight in the Revolution, write the Constitution, risk my life and fortune to assist the oppressed or contribute to the development of our democratic traditions. The war that I did fight was a waste. Other than being a (mostly) law-abiding citizen, an informed voter and (mostly) a person of good will toward others–like many other Americans–I can’t really say that America is anything that I can claim as an achievement of which to be proud.
I will say that I am proud of America. This nation has achieved much that is admirable. America was the first nation to institutionalize democratic government. Although that democracy was limited to a very few, our institutions and beliefs have expanded into a wider democracy. Americans fought against totalitarianism in World War II, contributed to rebuilding Europe under the Marshall Plan and offered refuge to dissidents and victims of persecution from around the world. I am proud to live in and be part of a nation with such ideals and history, even if they aren’t necessarily my doing.
But pride is dangerous. Western ethical and moral tradition regards pride as the most deadly sin
, the source of all other sin. Humility is necessary antidote to pride. For me as an American, humility requires that I recognize other aspects of our national achievements about which no American should be proud. Our all-too-human institutions have led to serious shortcomings: our very undemocratic actions to support dictators (like our one-time good friends, Saddam Hussein or Augusto Pinochet), secret wars, death squads, colonialism, near genocide of Native Americans, racial discrimination and support of corporate predation beyond (or within, for that matter) our borders. My pride in my country is tempered by knowing my country’s full history.
So when I see a “Proud to Be an American” bumper sticker, I wonder if that individual has thought about what that means, about how he or she specifically contributed to the America of which their bumper is so proud. Or the totality of American history, which includes cynical self-interest, repression and violence along with the altruism we so readily celebrate.
Perhaps the better way to put it is that I consider myself lucky–very, very lucky–to have been born American, to live in the First World where life is far better than it is for the vast majority of the world’s population. I don’t worry about finding enough food for the day. Nor do I need to worry about being attacked just because I am different from someone else. I sleep in a comfortable bed each night. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity for education and access to literature and ideas that constantly expand my horizon. My work has been interesting and rewarding. Yeah, I consider myself damned lucky to be an American (even counting the my year in Vietnam now safely in the past).
Our great good fortune seems to have created a collective myopia about America. We revel in our national accomplishments as if they were our own personal achievements and dismiss our less admirable actions as aberrations resulting from individual (someone else’s) failures. I guess that’s just human nature–no one really wants to be associated with injustice or oppression–but America is many things, good and bad. It’s a complete package not something you can pick and choose.
Contemplating my country, I am fond of Carl Schurz’s famous quote: "Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right." Schurz is also the author of an essay on “True Americanism”
which certainly speaks to the nation 150 years later.
What is the rule of honor to be observed by a power so strongly and so advantageously situated as this Republic is? Of course I do not expect it meekly to pocket real insults if they should be offered to it. But, surely, it should not, as our boyish jingoes wish it to do, swagger about among the nations of the world, with a chip on its shoulder, shaking its fist in everybody's face. Of course, it should not tamely submit to real encroachments upon its rights. But, surely, it should not, whenever its own notions of right or interest collide with the notions of others, fall into hysterics and act as if it really feared for its own security and its very independence.
As a true gentleman, conscious of his strength and his dignity, it should be slow to take offense. In its dealings with other nations it should have scrupulous regard, not only for their rights, but also for their self-respect. With all its latent resources for war, it should be the great peace power of the world. It should never forget what a proud privilege and what an inestimable blessing it is not to need and not to have big armies or navies to support. It should seek to influence mankind, not by heavy artillery, but by good example and wise counsel. It should see its highest glory, not in battles won, but in wars prevented. It should be so invariably just and fair, so trustworthy, so good tempered, so conciliatory, that other nations would instinctively turn to it as their mutual friend and the natural adjuster of their differences, thus making it the greatest preserver of the world's peace.
This is not a mere idealistic fancy. It is the natural position of this great republic among the nations of the earth. It is its noblest vocation, and it will be a glorious day for the United States when the good sense and the self-respect of the American people see in this their "manifest destiny." It all rests upon peace. Is not this peace with honor? There has, of late, been much loose speech about "Americanism." Is not this good Americanism? It is surely today the Americanism of those who love their country most. And I fervently hope that it will be and ever remain the Americanism of our children and our children's children.
Maybe I think this way because I came of age in the 1960's and served in a pointless war but I cannot simply assert that I am proud to be an American and leave it at that. No, I need to qualify that pride with reality, recognizing the good and the bad inherent in our experiment in self government along with my great good fortune to live in a country where (so far and for the most part) I am able to live and act freely. Whatever its faults, America has given me much. In return I offer my allegiance and willingness to work toward the “more perfect union” that is our national goal. A more perfect union that is good for America and our world neighbors.