(I meant to write and publish this on Independence Day, but I was hanging out with my family and never got to the computer!)
As July has arrived, I've found myself thinking about what it means to be patriotic in our current political climate. How can I say that I am proud to be an American when I am ashamed of almost everything our government officials are doing, saying, promoting? When disdain for anyone who isn't white, male, wealthy, able-bodied and cisgender runs rampant? When our government refuses to understand science and work to protect the world, when our national lands are up for sale to the highest-bidding oil drilling companies, when environmental restrictions are being overturned?
Our country where intelligence seems to have fled and stupidity rules the day?
Which brings me to another question: Can one round of really bad election results ruin America?
I hope not.
"Make American great again" as a rallying cry is problematic; it assumes America was, at some point in time, "great."
And aren't we great?
We are proud of our history of rebellion and the quest for freedom and liberty. We are a nation that helps other nations. We are a country that strives to spread freedom across the world.
I love America and I am glad to be an American. I am proud to be a descendant of people who came to America as immigrants looking for different types of freedom, from my most recently-emigrated great-great grandmother Annie who came from Sweden via a packet ship in 1863, all the way back to my great-something grandparents who came from England on the Mayflower.
But I can't say that without all of the problematic aspects of being an American nudging at me. I am not proud of what we did to Native Americans (and still, considering Bears' Ears and Standing Rock—what we are still, five centuries later, doing to Native Americans). I am not proud of our history of slavery. I am not proud of our history and ongoing relationship with racism and discrimination. I am not proud that all of the states have yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (and I'm ashamed that my state is on that list). I am not proud that in the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world (and in the history of humanity) there are homeless and hungry people.
And yet, when I saw that row of American flags at an Independence Day celebration at a local park, I still got a lump in my throat out of pride for my country.
Patriotism appears to make zero emotional sense.
The day after Independence Day, I read this poem, "The Tent," by Naomi Shihab Nye and I can't stop thinking about it. I love how she frames the idea of patriotism as both individual and community stories. We create it when we tell our history, when we place ourselves on the map of humanity, when we form something communal. It's a story we create, and for everyone it is a little bit (or, likely, a lot different).
A story was sewn, seed sown,
this was what patriotism meant to me—
to be at home inside my own head long enough
to accept its infinite freedom
and move forward anywhere, to mysteries coming.
to be at home inside my own head
Her poem somehow gave me the language to write about what I believe about America. I don't think we are great, not yet. I think we have had great moments. And I think we should continue to aspire to greatness; I think our potential for greatness is what makes my heart swell at the sight of the flag.
It shouldn't be "make America great again." It should just be "make America great."
Looking at the current state of things can easily fill me with despair. So, the following list is perhaps more about fling out sparks into the darkness as it is about building anything. But this is a list, anyway, of the story I tell myself about the qualities that a great American should have:
- A deep understanding of what freedom means and a commitment to honor and uphold the positive qualities of our society.
- Active in both local and national politics. (In other words…every American should vote, after studying the candidates and issues.)
- Educated, and not narrowly. Art is as important as technology, literature is as important as math. All subjects do, in fact, feed each other, and a population that is eager to learn as much as possible about many things will, I believe, create a society that is more capable and nurturing. (I feel constantly embarrassed, these days, about what people don't actually know about the world they live in.)
- Committed to equal rights and equal access to opportunities, education, safety, and health care.
- The ability to look forward and focus on building a better future for more people, not just the wealthy.
- The ability to look backward, not to recreate "better days" from the past, but to learn from our mistakes and not make them again.
- The compassion to realize that one individual's happiness is not more important than another's. (Both within our country and without.)
- A deep commitment to improving the world by using our knowledge to create green, non-polluting solutions and technologies.
- A global perspective—the realization that we are a part of the larger entity of the world, and that we should use our wealth to help other countries in non-destructive ways.
- An abhorrence for war.
- The valuing of creativity, perseverance, hard work, and intelligence.
- Accepting of "other" and recognizing that we are all different, but understanding that in our difference is our strength.
- The ability to realize that there is not just one norm, that we each live within our own perspectives and knowledge and to see that as a thing to improve on. (I know, for example, that I come from a place of relative privilege, because I am white and will not ever likely experience discrimination based on the color of my skin, but racism is a topic I care about and want to understand better.)
And yes, I know. Those are sparks: idealistic concepts that might not be achieved by humanity in decades. Centuries, even. Certainly not in the current political climate, which feels like a darkness we must suffer through. But despite our flaws, despite our failures, I still get a flutter at the sight of an American flag: We changed things. We can continue to change for the better—we can make America "great"—but only if we are willing to look at ourselves critically. Only if we as citizens can see that the greatness doesn't come from our leaders but from us, standing up and striving for greatness.
What qualities do you think a great American possesses?