King of the World: Patriotism's Purpose
I was watching some Youtube videos the other day and one particular video grabbed my attention. It was a clip from the HBO mini-series, The Newsroom, with three speakers, including the main protagonist, Will McAvoy, responding to questions at a college seminar. A young sophomore woman stands up and asks the three of them,
“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”
The first speaker answers diversity and opportunity, while the second, seated opposite of the Will responds proud fully freedom and freedom. Will however cheekily responds with the quip, “the New York Jets.” The facilitator is not pleased with his attempt at dodging the question and continually dogs him for an honest answer to the girl’s question. Finally he bursts,
“It’s not the greatest country in the world professor! That’s my answer!”
Over the next couple of minutes, Will bashes the idea of the statement quoting statistics that place America woefully behind other nations in positive categories, while the only ones it leads in were incarcerations, defense spending, and people who believed in angels. He even takes time to attack his co-speakers. Then to a silent hall he quietly says how America use to be the greatest nation because it stood by its ideals, had a great vision, and was not so divisive and afraid.
The only thing more interesting than this clip though was the Youtubers’ responses to it. Many angrily defended the American claim, while others continued to attack it. This was interesting because it made me wonder about patriotism and what purpose it honestly served.
Know Your History
It would be easy to dismiss this as typical liberal hoopla. HBO is well known for taking a leftist stance on political and social issues. However, if that is all it was, why the fuss? Who gives a fuck if the writers of the show think so poorly of the nation? Who gives a fuck is all the people who watched that clip, over a million, and people gave a fuck because it hit a nerve.
If you are raised in America, you were indoctrinated from birth that our nation has a strong and proud lineage. We stood against kings and empires and survived. We tore ourselves apart in civil war and recovered, went through the Great Depression and fought two world wars as the backbone of the allies’ resources and war material. We became a world superpower for over fifty years after World War Two, outlasting our rival the Soviet Union, with firing a single nuke and we celebrate our greatness every Fourth of July with huge fireworks display and an overabundance of food.
America achieved its past greatness in large part to other countries handing over that opportunity to America to begin with. In an argument with a New Zealander some years ago who stated her opinion that Americans were arrogant, it was pointed out that while that may be true, most of those other nations were letting America take the lead while they turned their attention to more domestic affairs.
The free world looked to America as the mainstay against the Soviet Union, and even today in the fight against the Islamic State in the Middle East, the world waited for America to fire the first shot before mobilizing militarily. It’s hard to take complaints about American pride seriously when those complaining were the ones who had a hand in making that happen.
Patriotic Americans point to these as markers of our greatness and are often fond of telling other Americans who complain about its faults,
“If you don’t love it, leave it!”
One would be hard pressed to argue with these arguments. They are documented facts paid for in sacrifice and blood, not political theories in a college debate. This is what we proudly proclaim to the world…
So why then is the world tired of hearing it?
Chopping at the Ego
There are counterpoints enough to hit back at this patriotism. For one, America is hardly the only country in the world that prides itself on past glories. It has even been argued that holding onto the past blinds Americans from just how far they have fallen. Other nations are just as selectively proud. Japan, for all its success after climbing from defeat and atomic ruin in the Second World War, is criticized for downplaying its role in wartime atrocities to maintain that modern success. China is infamous for tightly controlling the education of its young so that they support the government’s worldview and learn nothing of dissident movements like the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
And lest we forget of course Europe, who proudly tries to maintain its own identity while struggling with immigrants, whose ethnicities are not European. As one Frenchman said to me at a dinner in Paris,
“France is first. Everything else is second.”
By no means are Americans the international claim to fame game.
There is also the remark about how egocentric America has become as a society. The last time America had a revolution that truly rocked society was the Anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s. Like the Occupy movement in 2011, it was challenging the hypocrisy of the establishment and was a collective effort by thousands of people that believed what was happening was wrong. Unlike Occupy though, it lasted the entire decade, and when it was done America was a far different country coming out of the sixties than it was going into them and the social fabric of the nation was completely turned on its head.
"Patriotism is that foundation and that compromise."
Foundations of Sand and Stone
Human beings feel the need to have a solid basis from which to build themselves from, even if it’s flawed. It’s said that when 1984 democratic Vice-President nominee, Geraldine Ferraro ran and lost, she asked one voter why if they did not like what Ronald Reagan was doing did they vote for him? The response she got was that he made them proud to be Americans again.
For such a short answer, it’s very telling. A society needs to believe in itself in order to succeed, and is willing to make, and then deny, those compromises to do so. Patriotism is that foundation and that compromise.
No nation that has ever existed is guiltless. All of them have skeletons in their closet that they’d rather you forget about. Perhaps the one thing that America is unique in is that we have been rather open about those skeletons than most other nations, even if it was initially unintentional. But the line between having national pride, and letting that pride blind its people to injustices committed in the name of that pride, is a tenuous one. It may not be possible, but as long as anyone continues to claim, “we are the greatest country in the world”, we will remain a divided world.