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A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time as an exchange student in Germany, traveling with a group of students from across the United States. Part of traveling is a constant comparison between home and abroad: Public transportation? Germany wins. Sports? Toss-up. Food? Home. The reflex is natural for travelers, but some of my friends took it to extremes. Any positive experience they had had in America was dust in the Bavarian wind; Germany offered a superior alternative to every American system. The disposition, like our time abroad, proved temporary. But what was temporary among a bunch of Yankee tourists seems to have become a cultural default stateside.
The current intellectual mode is critical analysis and re-evaluation of important American moments and figures. Recurring tragedies of injustice understandably dampen any celebration of our history. And so the pendulum has swung harshly away from American exceptionalism, rejecting the “city on a hill” mythos and adopting a more cynical narrative: American inferiority. It reaches from high-profile academic work to popular protests, and leaves little room for patriotism. In a jungle of political connotations, that sentiment has been identified as a clawed and aggressive predator of the same genus as savage nationalism.
And yet — what if we need patriotism? American inferiority, while it rightfully points out some errors of the exceptionalist mindset, hides a dangerous nihilism.
A revolutionary air hangs over the moment. The philosophy of American inferiority demands change, and its intellectual dissent has grown into physical revolt. There are two sides to any movement: the change and the ideal. The change is the force of action; the ideal is the goal. Each balances the other, change bringing ideal into actuality, and ideal keeping change from anarchy. Every movement skews one way or the other, never completely balanced. An overly philosophical movement is inert. But an overly aggressive movement is destructive. As protests sweep America, buildings burn down and bullets steal lives. Amid this frightening outbreak of violence, it is clear that this movement does not skew toward inaction. Yet without firm temperance, activism devolves into chaotic upheaval; focus upon the construction of a more just republic descends into rage against the ancien régime; societal progress becomes a euphemism for the tumbril rolling to the guillotine. “Rash enthusiast of Change, beware!”
In every era, change has needed some guiding ideal to ascend to the height of progress. What ideal will guide this movement? The right of the people is a popular suggestion — symbolized by the anonymous raised fist of humanity, ubiquitous in Portland, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. A fine sentiment, but an unspecific assertion. Modern America, more mosaic than melting pot, responds, “Which people?” Our nation divides itself cleanly not even along political lines. With such diversity, the “right of the people” cannot possibly mean more than the right of each person; and the right of each person, carried to its furthest, is no more than anarchy. The people are the object, but are not the sort of thing — a right, a virtue, an idea — that can guide change.
Past protests had patriotism to guide them. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most famous speech beside an American flag, overlooking a sea of red, white, and blue signs holding America accountable to its founding dream. Likewise, the civil rights marchers followed a platoon of American flags into Montgomery. If patriotism is unpopular now, it is because we have misunderstood America. Our history has its flaws. Too often the flag has witnessed the oppression and suffering of its own people. But whereas other nations base identity on dates and bloodlines and locations, America is not, at heart, a history. What is America? More than anything, she is an idea — a dream of equality in the form of a republic. America is a social covenant, a commitment to the equality and unalienable rights written in the Declaration of Independence and applied through the Constitution. Patriotism is not a flag blindfolding the patriot to injustices. It is hope for this idea’s ever-increasing realization; it tethers change to the transcendent ideals that form America.
Nevertheless, today one is as likely to find a flag flying as to find it upside down or burning in protest cities. Decrying an inherently corrupt America, the protests across the nation are all but void of national symbols. Consider athletes kneeling for the national anthem, a forerunner of today’s demonstrations. The players’ action is rooted in the fact of unjust killings at the hands of the law, but what does its symbolism mean? For the civil rights movement, the flag was a symbol of hope — they held onto that flag, letting go of equality for all men for nothing. Disregarding the flag or the national anthem, then, speaks to a nihilism about America. The nation will never be more than the worst of its history; there is no hope in a transcendent American ideal. Herein lies the danger of American inferiority. Far enough away to see the nation’s faults, it remains too close to see anything but the faults.
Patriotism cannot solve our nation’s problems. It cannot fix a wage gap. It cannot stop unjust killings. It cannot abolish injustice. But we cannot realize the sublime idea of America without patriotic hope. Otherwise all we have is American inferiority’s nihilistic vision of a stumbling nation. Our eyes darkened, we may advocate and legislate, but we will be forever tossed upon the whims of the moment — always reacting, never progressing. Our untethered change will create the stumbling nation we feared, and America will mean nothing more than a history or a place. Without patriotism, we will lose America, for we will have given up on the idea.
Joseph McDonough ’23 lives in Kirkland House.
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