What follows are some of my thoughts on U.S. History, Patriotism, American exceptionalism, and how we can become a more united country as we celebrate 244 years of independence.
Thoughts on Independence Day
Over the last few years, the 4th of July has been a time of both celebration and consternation. I enjoyed spending quality time with family cooking over a charcoal grill in the summer sun and watching fireworks light up the night sky with friends. However, as the nights wore on and the fireworks began to fade, I could not help but think about the state of my country.
This year, that sense of unease has turned into something approaching panic. It feels like America is gasping for air and preparing to take its last breath. Like all of you, I’m trying to just get through each day and hoping that once enough of them have passed, we will be alright.
The Arc of American History
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The founding fathers were flawed men with a vision that was revolutionary in its conception and forward-looking for its time. Through their words and actions, they demoted the King of England to “non-essential employee” status and showed the people of America that self-government was both possible and desirable.
Then they went further, introducing the concept of equal justice under the law. Limited and unequal though their conception was, their words planted a seed that would inspire future generations to push the cause of liberty forward by creating movements to address the concerns of an increasingly diverse society.
The 244 years of the American Experiment (from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to this very moment) have largely focused on expanding the definition of citizenship to encompass more rights and to extend those rights to more people. That is what the American Labor Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and countless other movements throughout our history were all about.
Immediately following every expansion of rights has been a backlash. As new groups (ethnic minorities, immigrants, women, etc.) sought opportunity and achieved success in their own right, more established groups felt their place threatened in the social, economic, and political life of the country and tried to secure their place at the top of the social hierarchy by attempting to take away the rights of others, often violently.
When you read our history or follow the news, you will see this back and forth dynamic play out in a million different ways and you will be reminded of just how long it takes for a historical narrative to truly be resolved.
A Few Examples:
Before Lyndon Johnson was able to get the votes needed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (the heavily watered-down precursor to the 1964 Civil Rights Act) and send the bill to President Eisenhower’s desk to be signed into law, Congress had successfully prevented any piece of civil rights legislation from even being scheduled for debate — for more than 80 years.
It took 144 years of nationhood for women to be granted the right to vote. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, the year that my grandma was born. In other words, approximately half of our population did not yet have the right to vote — during the lifetime of someone I knew well.
And more than 150 years after the Civil War officially ended, we are still debating whether or not to remove Confederate Statues from town squares.
I could go on… but I think you get the idea.
Progress in America has been painfully slow, which makes what I am about to say all the more surprising.
When compared to the history of many nations, America could be considered quick to embrace social change. Consider the fact that out of the world’s 197 countries, 28 of them still have a monarchy. And a few of those (Saudia Arabia, Bahrain & Brunei come to mind) still have absolute monarchies exerting greater power without the people’s consent than King George could have realistically hoped for as he attempted to keep the unruly American colonies under his control.
The progress that we have made in creating a more inclusive society is one of the major reasons why we, as a young country, were able to so quickly emerge as the world’s preeminent economic and military power.
The fight for expanded rights also tested our dedication to democratic principles by forcing us to answer the question of whether we wanted liberty only for ourselves, or whether we wanted liberty to be a privilege enjoyed by all of our people. The struggle to answer this question helped make us a beacon of democracy around the world.
Unlike many countries, we have rarely tried to keep our internal conflicts quiet. The struggles of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as well as the Civil Rights movement of today, are broadcast to TV networks around the world. We loudly deride the other political party (whichever party that happens to be) to anyone who will listen, American or otherwise.
I remember a great scene from a movie made in the 1980s that perfectly encapsulated this phenomenon (for the life of me, I can’t remember the name). The scene starts with a first-generation Chinese immigrant who walks into a bar, overhears one of the guys at the bar (donning a cowboy hat and boots) casually talking, without a care in the world, about how the President ought to be removed; the newcomer promptly leaves for fear of the police showing up. That, for me, exemplifies the importance that we place on the freedom of speech in our culture. This is a freedom that I personally cherish and try not to take for granted.
“E Pluribus Unum”
Striving towards a more perfect union is as close to a mission statement as this country has. The Great Seal of The United States reads “E Pluribus Unum,” a Latin phrase meaning “Out of many, one.” The emphasis is often placed on the “one,” but I think the “Out of many” is just as important. The motto is not new. It was added to the great seal in 1782. The aspiration of welcoming newcomers to our shores and bringing them into the fold of American society is something that has been with us from the beginning.
These waves of newcomers (originally including groups fleeing from religious persecution and workers condemned to a life of poverty in their home countries), found a new home, clashed with indigenous peoples, betrayed their trust with one humiliating treaty after another, committed atrocities in the name of westward expansion, cruelly and unjustly enslaved people, and, yes, paved the road to prosperity for many — while leaving a wound that we are still trying to heal to this day. History is not black or white. It is profoundly, uncomfortably gray. But we are always better off for coming to terms with it.
Understanding that our history has not been an unbroken series of successes, but one of hard-fought battles and the overcoming of adversities against long odds should be a comfort to us in this difficult time. It reminds us of how far we’ve come, and puts into perspective the issues we are dealing with now that seem so insurmountable.
How We Think About Patriotism
This is a time of adversity, which means that it is also a time calling out for reinvention. To reimagine ourselves, we need to change how we think about patriotism and the idea of American exceptionalism.
Throughout my life, I have tried to maintain friendships across the political spectrum. I have spent the 4th of July with the most liberal of liberals and the staunchest of conservatives. In my conversations with them, I have come to realize that they often think of the word patriotism in very different ways.
The Conservative View of Patriotism
My conservative friends often see patriotism as believing that the United States is a uniquely and inherently special country. This special quality is largely attributed to America’s ideals and the founding fathers’ vision for the country. If they are being candid with you, they will admit that our society is not without problems, but they view those problems as being unrelated to the special nature of our founding principles. With many conservatives, saying that America is number one or the best country in the world would be entirely uncontroversial. And they see people who spend their days loudly decrying our failure to live up to those ideals and constantly referencing the dark periods in our past as being something other than patriotic.
The Liberal View of Patriotism
By contrast, my liberal friends often see patriotism as an outdated concept and view themselves primarily as citizens of the world. They also view the idea of American exceptionalism with skepticism. This is because they often associate it with cultural superiority on some level. Instead of focusing on America’s ideals as envisioned by the framers of the constitution and other early leaders, Liberals tend to focus on a different set of values. They emphasize the importance of creating a more equitable society by materially helping traditionally marginalized communities (through policies such as funding for historically black colleges and affirmative action). Liberals are also more likely to see protesting as a patriotic act.
My View of Patriotism
I think both of these interpretations are incomplete, but they are both onto something. By combining the best elements of each side’s definition of patriotism, we are left with an altogether more helpful definition.
The conservatives’ view is aspirational. They view the United States being exceptional (the number one country, in fact) as a worthwhile goal. And I find the focus on America’s founding fathers to be admirable. In a world of fast-paced change, we must get back to basics from time to time and remember why the country was founded in the first place. However, the goal of number one status is too often detached from where we actually rank among nations in terms of infrastructure, education, healthcare, etc. I also too often see an unwillingness to learn from nations around the world. We need conservatives because they rein in the excesses of fast-paced and sometimes haphazard attempts at change. They also remind us of the traditions that might be worth holding onto as we march towards social progress.
The liberal view is humanitarian, firmly rooted in fairness, and keenly aware of the darker parts of our past. Liberals and progressives make us look in the mirror and bring a sense of urgency to our ideals. However, the focus directed towards our failures often is not balanced with an acknowledgment of our achievements and strengths as a country, and too often does not provide a positive vision for the future. I also do not believe that American exceptionalism has to mean that we view ourselves as superior to other countries in any way. We can learn from others, compete against ourselves, and strive to be the best that we can be, without looking down on anyone. This is as true for countries as it is for individuals. I think liberals can play a more active role in explaining how exactly we can pragmatically work with other nations in order to improve Americans’ quality of life.
If I had to define patriotism, it would be something along the lines of:
“Patriotism is a feeling of appreciation for one's country, combined with a desire to make it better for all of its people, and a personal commitment to improve one’s community in some way.”
It is important to remember that:
(1) Improving a society requires an awareness of its shortcomings. An honest appraisal of your country’s problems is an essential part of patriotism when combined with a desire to solve those problems.
(2) Even small things help. Waving and smiling at your neighbor when they cross the street contributes to a more kind society. Allowing people the space to express their ideas and opinions (especially when you disagree with them) creates a more free-flowing and productive public dialogue.
The way forward includes less talking and a whole lot more listening from all of us. Our politics and our society more broadly have been fracturing, and we all have a role to play.
Every time we delete a friend on Facebook because we don’t like what they have to say about politics, we retreat further into our bubbles, where our beliefs are reinforced and our minds made more impervious to the reality of the world outside. And being impervious to facts makes good policymaking a shot in the dark at best, and nearly impossible at worst.
Objective vs. Subjective Truth
“But what if the people in my bubble happen to be right?” you might ask. Let’s suppose you are right for the sake of argument. Your side has all the answers and the other side has none. Assuming that’s true, you could proudly claim ownership of the objective truth. But if you hold “being right” over others, that means your ability to change their minds about anything just plummeted. And in a democracy, the ability to change people’s minds is everything.
Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other. We must be defending or attacking something; only the lily-livered hide their natural cowardice by asking the impudent question: What is it all about?
— James Harvey Robinson
Moreover, you are missing out on what I would argue is the whole purpose of political discussion — to learn. By talking to people who are saying things you know to be objectively untrue (though we should always be looking for information that challenges what we “know to be true”), you can learn a deeper truth. They have a unique worldview (a subjective truth, if you will) that is informed by their values, which are in turn born of their personal experiences. If you find your political debate turning into an interview for a personal interest story on your debate partner’s life, then you know you are on the right track to learning the real reasons why they believe as they do.
Learning From Ideologues
By being curious and letting go of the desire to “win,” you can learn from even the most hardened ideologues, and maybe even change their minds over time with steadfast patience, active listening, and genuine curiosity. Whether or not that happens, taking the time to learn about their experiences will likely leave you with a deeply humanizing view of that person.
The simple act of listening will not only give you a better understanding of that person, but it will teach you to pay attention to the moral framework that operates beneath the surface, and so often drives what we believe. Over time, you will get better at identifying the values of others and explaining your point of view in terms of those values. This is where breakthroughs occur, because they no longer see you as the representative of a group they despise, but as a friend who understands where they are coming from.
American exceptionalism is a choice; it is by no means guaranteed.
If we are to emerge from the severe crises we are now facing, stronger, it will be because Americans (and I hope, the people reading this article) cared enough about their friends and neighbors to make the necessary sacrifices, and once the crises pass, go on to have real conversations with each other and imagine something better.
We can choose to be exceptional as individuals, as communities, and as a country starting today.
Please make your voice heard and vote this November.