July 4th, 2005

flavored with age

Written three years ago, but trebly true today.

In his excellent book Bad: or, the Dumbing of America, historian and social critic Paul Fussell concludes with the following lines: "There is one day of the year when America should receive nothing but praise. That's July Fourth. On all other occasions, those who wish the United States well will vigorously distinguish the good from the bad." I've always heartily agreed with this sentiment; people who use July 4th as a jumping-off point to point out how dissatisfied they are with this country strikes me as uncharitable (as well as predictable, since these are usually people who likewise beef about America the other 364 days of the year). No one but naughty adolescents should think there's something daring or heroic about badmouthing the country on Independence Day; it's entirely in the spirit of telling your mother that you don't like her on her birthday.

In that spirit, I set out to write an entry that contained pure positive sentiment for the land of my birth. It's hard to turn that particular trick; possessed of a postmodernist philosophy that nettles when it runs across cultural value judgments, and viewing unbridled pride as something very closely related to boosterism (and, therefore, advertising), statements of pure patriotism don't come easy for me, especially when you consider how trite and mindless they often are, and how they often accomplish their goal in a negative way -- not simply praising the things that make America great, but contrasting unfavorably those countries that supposedly don't have them. But the place where I live truly is an amazing one, and many brave things have been said and done to affirm (if not embrace) my right to get squicked out about rampant jingoism of the sort that usually passes for patriotism in the United States.

It's a shopworn liberal truism to say that relentless criticism of America is born of a true patriotism; it's because I love my country so much, the saying goes, that I bemoan its mistakes so loudly; if I didn't like it, I wouldn't be bothered by its bad behavior. Now, this may be true, and it may not be. I, for example, often vigorously criticize things I don't love, because I think they suck and want people to know how much I think they suck. And sometimes I just complain because I like complaining. Finally, I love living in America, but I have no real basis for comparison; I've never lived anywhere else for any length of time. Like most political discussions, the one involving the superiorty of one country in terms of living standards to another usually takes place on a purely theoretical or speculative level. Still, In considering why I think this country can legitimately lay claim to greatness -- why, if I am honest with myself, I think it is superior to other countries -- I couldn't help but fall into the trap of contrast. But I didn't find myself thinking about ways that, say, France or Kenya are inferior to the U.S.; instead, I found myself thinking about how the reasons I think America is great differ so vastly from the reasons those who normally scold me for my lack of patriotism think it's great.

You learn in literary theory that one of the greatest mistakes a reader can make when analyzing a text is what's called "ignorance of the essential" -- that is, getting so caught up in detail or style or circumstance that you miss out entirely on the aspect of the work that is the most distinctive and forms its very center. Reading columns by the self-important patriots of the right, I see a huge amount of ignorance of the essential in their assessments of what makes America great. There is much citation, obviously, of our economic wealth, of our technological acumen, of our superior scientific and medical knowledge. There are lots of high-handed intonations about "the American Dream", by which they mean the reputed ability of any of its citizens to make a whole lot of money. There's plenty of talk about our grand national monuments and natural beauty, our traditions, our institutions (educational, journalistic, and so on), and especially our paid government enforcers -- the police and the military. This is all very well and good; some of these things are perfectly fine, and some of them are even wonderful. But are they the reasons America is great? I don't think so. They are accidental (our natural resources), contingent (our economic power and technological expertise), or typical (our police and institutions). They are not essentual, but peripheral, to why America is great. The founders -- who were among the very few people in all of history who can rightly be said to have done something genuinely iconoclastic and paradigm-busting, who created a nation that had never existed before, predicated it on notions of universal liberty and justice, and successfully defended it against the massive power of the old and established -- had none of these things in mind when they made America. They probably would have been pleased to know about them, but their intentions -- and the results, which are why this country is great -- were based on very different priorities.

The essence of America -- the things that truly make it unique, the reasons for its difference, and the ideas that must always be preserved -- are the ones in the heart of the documents of its founding; and, coincedentally or not, the ones that the right, with their incessant talk about patriotism as distinguished from America-hating, seem the most uncomfortable with. The idea that people have the right to throw off their government if it is not serving their interests; the idea that everyone is free to say what they want, regardless of how others judge it; the idea that your opportunities and liberties should not depend on how much money you have; the idea that the rule of law supersedes every other consideration of the power of man; the idea that the government has no business establishing the rightness or wrongness of religion; the idea that there is a presumption of innocence for every citizen, and that the force of the law should have less weight than the rights of the individual; and, most of all, that the character of the nation should be determined by the character of its people, while at the same time protecting the ability of the least of those people to differ in character: these are the things that are at the heart of America. These are what is essential, as embodied in our government, our courts, our laws, our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence. And these are the things that many people seem to fear, rather to embrace.

Every day, pundits and would-be patriots, people who excoriate others for their alleged lack of Americanism (provable, usually, by their criticism of foreign adventurism or economic brutality), fight a war of words -- and sometimes of legislation -- against the very things that make America great. They frown mightily at the notion of reevaluating our system of governance (except those aspects of it which prevent the enforcement of religious law or which encourage the rich to bear a fair share of the national upkeep); they shake their heads sadly at the free expression of ideas they find unacceptable; they bemoan the extension of opportunity to those who can't afford to just buy it themselves; they demand obedience to strong and charismatic personalities and cheer the triumph of the will of man over the rule of law; they beg God to re-enter civic society, where they claim He has always belonged; they relentlessly preach that civil rights should take a back seat to public safety; and they are thrown into such a panic by the naturally occuring change in the cultural complexion of America that the only constitutional amendments they support are those which restrict the document's flexibility; they raise suspicious eyebrows at the presence of religions, races, philosophies or sexualities other than their own and talk as if exclusion were the norm and freedom is something that should naturally contract and not expand. What America do these people want to live in? Where does the uniqueness of this country lie in their eyes? How can they sing such praises of our forward-thinking founders when they reject all the ideas that made them praiseworthy?

Today, as every Fourth of July, I am proud that I live in a country whose essential premises are the most liberal, libertarian and adaptable that exist anywhere on Earth. I am happy that the laws of my homeland at least make the presumption that I am worth protecting and that my ideas, as unpopular as they may be, should be allowed, if not embraced. As for the people on the other side; as for the people who wish to abandon the essence of America and take pride only in our genius, our dominant cultural expression, our industry, our resouces, or our money -- transient, contingent notions that have little to do with Americans and nothing to do with America -- I'm pleased that I am allowed to write these words about them despite the hugely disproportionate amount of power they wield; and I'm hopeful that they will not reach their goals: that America will remember for a good long time its essential qualities, its foundation in freedom, and its difficult but never-ceasing commitment to justice.

Happy Independence Day.