Of all the trans-Atlantic chasms that cannot be bridged, patriotism is one of the widest. To Europeans who pride themselves on sophistication and nuance, the hand-on-heart hail-the-flag version bolsters their negative perception of Americans. It was therefore surprising when the Euro 2004 soccer championships provoked a sudden and unexpected outbreak of St. George’s crosses across my country. This afforded an uplifting couple of weeks until we were knocked out by Portugal.
The Bishop of Hulme, however, identified it as part of ‘a “dangerous” increase in English nationalism which had parallels with the rise of Nazism. Also on the Episcopal hit list was the hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country” — you can find the full text at www.oremus.org/hymnal, when it becomes clear that the bishop has a point only if you stop reading after the first verse. This would be rather like leaving “Macbeth” at the interval and concluding that Shakespeare applauded murder in pursuit of ambition.
This was bad enough, but the bishop hadn’t finished: “it is like American culture where there is this view that America is the land of the free when we know it is not. But there are those in America who want to maintain that it is and want to impose their understanding, their culture, their way of doing things on everybody else. That is dangerous.”
Leaving aside the casual smugness, I wonder if the bishop has seen this year’s UN Human Development Index, which ranks America as the eighth best country in which to live; behind Canada but ahead of Britain, France, and Germany. The list was headed by capitalist democracies, which suggests that the world needs more American influence, not less. Whatever you might think about America — and goodness knows there are myriad valid criticisms — the fact that it’s possible to buy seventy-three types of breakfast cereal may make it a country devoted to pointless, even immoral, consumption, but it’s far better than the alternative. I’d much rather live here than a country where 16-year-old girls are hanged from cranes or where child soldiers participate in tribal massacres. Or where a quarter of a million people aren’t allowed to demonstrate against their lack of freedom.
The Presidential Proclamation of Dec. 18, 2001 which designated Sept. 11 as Patriot Day stated that “from the tragedy — emerged a stronger Nation, renewed by a spirit of national pride and a true love of country.” This is a nebulous and tricky concept: at what point does national pride become objectionable chauvinism? I suspect that most Yalies would agree with Dr. Johnson that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Even an outsider like me can see how, over the past three years, “patriotism” has been the easy weapon of emotional blackmail, used instead of an intelligent response to those who criticize the Bush administration. No one camp has a monopoly on patriotism, nor is it unpatriotic to question the actions of your country. On my way to writing this column, I passed a car with a bumper sticker that read “Be Patriotic! Vote Bush Out.” Nothing wrong there; only those who love a country or institution want to correct its flaws. Indifference is the greater fault.
Coincidentally, Saturday is also the Last Night of the Proms back home, the one night of the year when Brits indulge in a little furtive patriotism. But this year’s program also includes a glorious piece of Americana, Sousa’s “Liberty Bell” march, an outstanding choice for Sept. 11 (although the effect might be lessened for most Brits, who will hear it as the theme tune to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”). Contrast that with Michael Moore’s response to Sept. 11:
“Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes’ destination of California — these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!”
Sousa’s work is emblematic of the greatness of America, of the epochal affirmation of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Whether you’re for or against the President — and I declare no strong opinions either way — Saturday is a day for contemplation on these themes, not incontinent rhetoric.
I spend a lot of time back home defending America and its constant failure to live up to its self-proclaimed standards of the Declaration and the Gettysburg Address. But in my opinion, the great American virtue is its refusal to sink into cynicism. If you have impossibly high standards, you’re guaranteed to fall short. And that only proves what isn’t perhaps emphasized enough in optimistic America: that the only freedom worth having includes the freedom to fail.
Nick Baldock is a second-year graduate student in history.