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It’s hard to be patriotic at Harvard.
Socially, it’s the kind of pressure that would make you shy away from throwing a U.S.A.-themed party or posting a purely celebratory post on the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. It’s the fear that there will be backlash, the fear of being asked, “How could you celebrate such a flawed country?”
Academically, it’s the kind of pressure that makes you couch any kind of praise of the U.S. with critique. The formula is as follows: “So yeah, the U.S. has provided the most extensive source of humanitarian aid in the history of the world … but it’s a horribly imperialist enterprise.” Swap imperialist with racist, sexist, homophobic, undemocratic, and hateful at your leisure.
It’s not that I don’t think the U.S. has been culpable for some instances of imperialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, or hatefulness. Hell, I’m sure we've done it all.
But we’ve also done plenty of good and are founded on principles that assume the equality and dignity of every citizen; I believe that we’re, overall, a force for good. Past and present transgressions aren’t reasons not to love the country.
Patriotism is a tricky, misconstrued feeling. David Brooks’s recent column post notes that flawed perceptions of patriotism often create an ingroup and outgroup, rather than one nation. Nationalism, the kind you see on the far right, isn't patriotism because it defines an American as one (predominantly white) thing, therefore creating an outgroup. There also tends to be a performative type of patriotism on the right: The U.S.A.-chanting, MAGA-hat-wearing patriotism, which doesn't amount to any concrete policy or mission of unity.
The extreme “wokeism” of the far left isn't patriotism either. It demands conformity to progressive ideals and shuns of any trace of American pride. It’s an exercise in shame, one that requires a “true American” to live in a state of constant penance, and is a strain of thought that permeates many of Harvard’s political and academic circles. It’s a classic Harvard problem — complain, but don’t fix; ostracize, but don’t engage.
Oddly enough, I learned the true meaning of patriotism in high school theology class. Sister Mary would speak of the different types of love, identifying “agape” love as love’s truest, purest expression. It’s understood as the unselfish love that God and humans have for one another. It’s both the highest form of love and the most difficult to achieve.
If we embrace agape love, we choose a tough love. We choose to accept someone or something's flaws, and love through them.
An agape love of country is a healing love. It means accepting the sins of the nation but loving it anyway, in hopes of mending the nation’s open wounds. It’s a risky bet because agape is reciprocal. That means that there is a constant hope that in loving the nation, it will love you back.
Patriotism, for me, is as complicated as the country it calls us to love. It’s an understanding of America’s faults but a commitment to fixing them. It means you’ll have to see the ugly — much like you do if you are a parent, or a spouse, or even a friend — and embrace it out of hope and out of duty. Brooks writes, “Sometimes caring for America brings moral shame.”
But the question remains: Why love the country in the first place?
I could embark on an epic soliloquy about the values of democracy, individualism, freedom (picture an American flag waving in the background, an eagle soaring). I could tell you that my mother is an immigrant who has built a life in this country. I could expound on the American dream and the opportunities extended to each citizen. But, while I personally believe all these things to an extent, they fall prey to common critiques, which I see as often too simplified. Not everyone is free, not everyone gets equal opportunities, not everyone can immigrate or build a life.
So I’ll leave you with my most basic reason for why I choose to love this country: It’s where I live.
I want where I live to thrive, I want it to be just and righteous. And without first loving it, it will never succeed. Because if we don’t approach the country with love, even tough love, we won’t be able to have a better outcome for all, only for some.
American Harvard students have an immense responsibility to love their country. Our education is a privilege and a key to power. We go on to be CEOs, senators, presidents, even. Lately, there’s been discussion about how a Harvard education or affiliation has been abused, specifically by lawmakers that endorsed views that undermined democracy. The critique is empty, however, if it isn't followed up by a renewed call for patriotism. Where is the apologetic shame getting us? We point fingers and sow seeds of division, never channeling our talents and privilege towards unifying and healing.
Brooks writes that America is “a tradition of conflict about our very foundations.” It’s a tradition of civic disagreement through thoughtful debate and participation in public forums and community activities.
This thoughtful discussion no longer exists at Harvard. For one, outright “civic engagement” has become nearly impossible unless you fit a mainstream liberal ideology. Even academically, professors are finding themselves constricted, banding together to fight back against an onslaught on academic freedom. When students can’t openly disagree and professors can’t teach unpopular findings, there will no longer be a “tradition of conflict.”
As an exceedingly “progressive” institution, Harvard errs on the side of dismissing America as irredeemable and therefore not worth engaging. Love of country becomes a fault, not a virtue. This love is the exact opposite of agape — it only occurs when everything is right and just. It evaporates when the going gets tough, leaving wounds to fester and groups to drift further and further apart.
So let’s consider a Harvard where patriotism is encouraged, even when injustice abounds.
This is a Harvard where the student body celebrates Memorial Day and Veterans Day, while students thoughtfully discuss the mistakes the U.S. military has made in their classes. This is a Harvard where American students don’t have to temper their pride in the country, especially around their international peers. This is a Harvard where students learn about the strides the country has made in bridging racial inequalities, while remaining committed to solving the lingering issues of systemic racism.
It’s a Harvard where I can openly proclaim that I love my country.
Carine M. Hajjar ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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