Nationalism is alive and well at Yale. Why? Because Captain Freedom is here.
The recent success of the men’s hockey team was remarkable, but I found myself more intrigued by one of their mascots. “Captain Freedom” is a Delta Kappa Epsilon brother (currently Tim Handlon ’10) who skates around Ingalls Rink, energizing hockey fans. His uniform may be cobbled together, passed down year after year, but his patriotism is constant.
Sports teams often produce nationalistic sentiments in spectators, yet is seems strange that Captain Freedom is such a powerful symbol at a university that tries to be international in its focus. Perhaps, though, he gets at Yale’s historical spirit: Though the Yale campus currently hosts people of many nationalities, it has been affiliated with the American elite for the past three centuries. The success of a Yale student (or group of Yale students) is seen as an affirmation of the greatness of the institution, and as a result, the greatness of America.
When someone appears to challenge the legitimacy of this nationalism, as Gerardo Giacoman Colyer did in a letter to the editor (“Captain Freedom — for whom?” March 25), he is punished. Many of the 43 comments so far posted in response to Giacoman’s letter are variations of “love it or leave it.” This is the typical debate: red “patriots” versus blue “globalists.” These categories create clear distinctions between the people who love America unconditionally and the people who love to criticize it.
But the question is not who supports America and who doesn’t. Giacoman’s critique was constructive — he wants America (and the American image) to be more accessible to people of all national origins. As the bumper sticker/T-shirt/slogan goes, “Dissent is patriotic.” We must ask the real question: Is America exceptional?
Yes, it is. America is exceptional.
President Obama reflected this sentiment at this past weekend’s NATO Summit in Strasbourg, France, where he attempted to direct Europe’s attention toward the war in Afghanistan. The 28 countries in the alliance appeared to support Obama’s Afghan initiative, yet they only pledged to send 3,000 troops to Afghanistan. Regardless of what one thinks about the war in Afghanistan, Obama’s effort was collaborative. And, Obama believes in American exceptionalism, just as he suspects that, as he said in an interview with the Financial Times, “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Obama expressed similar sentiments in a 2007 interview with New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. According to Cohen, Obama’s view of exceptionalism is not rooted in military prowess or economic dominance, but restraint. This restraint is not an indication of passivity. It is indicative of a willingness to lead by example.
At the NATO Summit, Obama also argued that he is “extremely proud of [his] country and its role and history in the world.” This history may or may not include past iterations of American exceptionalism, including the type expressed in the second inaugural address of George W. Bush ’68. Bush envisioned a patrician America, a country with “considerable” influence that sought the “growth of democratic movements in every nation and culture” and the “eventual triumph of freedom.”
Bush’s vision of America acknowledged our greatness. Though his legacy is still undecided, Bush spoke eloquently about freedom. (Yes, I said eloquently.) I believe America is exceptional because dissent is tolerated, and, despite historical transgressions, we still believe that human lives are full of potential. Yet Bush’s notion of exceptionalism failed to acknowledge the greatness of other nations. Foreign countries should not be recreated in the image of America.
Bush’s concept of exceptionalism is more traditional and less nuanced than Obama’s. Traditional American exceptionalism is rooted in myths that date back to the Revolutionary War, when America was depicted as a nation of rebels that overthrew the restrictive British government. Since the revolution America has been presented as a place of unlimited opportunity. Because of this, we are greater than other nations and must teach them to appreciate our values.
But before the Civil Rights era, America’s most vulnerable citizens — namely women; the poor; and religious, ethnic and sexual minorities — were denied unlimited opportunities. Legal barriers have fallen, but opportunity still remains inaccessible to many.
Human rights violations and failing infrastructures must be remedied, but a nation cannot force a value system upon another nation. Obama’s address to NATO was an attempt to tap into the potential of other nations. Managing the war in Afghanistan will be a collaborative effort, requiring the exceptional talents of the world’s nations.
I embrace America. I embrace America’s complex history, its liberties and its skating frat brothers. But I do not believe that it should dominate the global landscape. “Citizen Globalist” is not as cool as “Captain Freedom,” but he might be able to skate pretty well.
Kristen Wright is a freshman in Daevnport College.