Like you, I’m sure, I love America, but love has changed. I started with the kid version: America is the biggest and most powerful country in the world.
This emotion does not usually survive into adulthood, especially in times like these. This kind of patriotism tends to downplay shameful truths. It tends to swell into a delicate and inordinate pride.
These days, it’s hard to be gleefully confident in the core American belief we were so proud of – e pluribus unum. Among many, one. We don’t appear to be “one” today if you look at the facts.
This general disillusionment with e pluribus unum has caused many people to abandon patriotism altogether. On the right, people who often call themselves patriots are in fact nationalists, a chauvinism which is an entirely different emotion. Nationalists believe America is bitterly divided between themselves and the internal enemies who betray it. Nationalists base their loyalty not on our common belief but on a common clan, in which you are either inside or outside.
“A nationalist,” writes George Orwell, “is one who thinks only, or primarily, in terms of competitive prestige.”
To a much lesser extent, disillusionment with e pluribus unum has led some on the left to also conclude that America is definitely divided between oppressive groups and oppressed groups. To them, Joe Biden’s insistent call for unity seems naive.
The problem is, if you let go of shared patriotism, you have severed the ties of civic life. There is no such thing as loyal opposition. There is nothing like putting the country above the party. We are talking about how people have become more passionate about their partisan identity. Maybe the problem is that people have become less passionate about a shared American identity.
And yet, like you perhaps, I still consider myself to be an extremely patriotic person. That’s why I admired Yale political philosopher Steven B. Smith’s book “Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes” so much. It explained my emotion to me, as it could be yours to you.
Smith’s concept that opened the door for me is the idea that American patriotism is both rational and emotional, irrational.
It taps into a brain root. We are a people of texts. We tend to study and re-study a few key texts, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Speech, and the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. These texts contain ideas that we subscribe to, but also ideals that warm our hearts.
The central core of American ideals would certainly include equality, inclusion, self-government and aspiration, the idea that to be an American involves climbing towards something. We also have this unusual assumption that America is not just a piece of land, but also a project. We don’t just live here. We have goals.
We seek to express American ideals, and when we do, it turns out we don’t agree! American patriotism, writes Smith, “is unique in its character of questioning.” We are a tradition of conflict on our very foundations.
This conflict takes place not only in the marches but also in the school boards, in the mundane daily acts of civic participation. Wartime heroism is not the culmination of American patriotism. Write a dissenting comment on this east column.
This type of patriotism “is the first virtue of social institutions”. This is what keeps everything together and works. It is the decline of this loyalty that has tended to shake our institutions.
From this activity a certain type of emotional state arises. When we discuss something, we develop an empathy for it, a level of care. We develop a constant loyalty and gratitude for the way this has made us certain kinds of people.
Sometimes taking care of America brings moral shame. As Senator Cory Booker observed, “If America hasn’t broken your heart, then you don’t love it enough.”
But it’s a very resilient, strong but not flamboyant form of national love. This kind of love that Smith sustains is best expressed by the Yiddish term mishpocheh. It means family but more than family, but also extended relationships and people from the same place:
“Mishpocheh may not even be personal acquaintances, but we know them when we see them – by their clothes and habits, by their voice and inflection, by their body language and by a whole host of subtle clues. and not so subtle. These people are not necessarily close friends, but they are not entirely strangers. “
Somehow, they’re just us, and we’re just them.
Nourish your eyes on your city until the love of it fills your heart, ordered Pericles in his famous oration. He was speaking in times of war when national unity was forged by the foreign threat. We, on the other hand, live in a time of domestic strife where our love must be powerful, patient, merciful, forgiving.
Smith ends the book with one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen lyrics:
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries bitches and gamers
This train carries lost souls
I said these train dreams won’t be thwarted
This train faith will be rewarded.
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