So I am, in a word, a weirdo.
I’m trying to find some kind of apples-to-apples way to compare the person with whom I am friends on Facebook who got married two months after we graduated high school, with the person I follow on Tumblr who once used the tag “American exceptionalism is a myth,” but that ends up being sort of apples-to-oranges and frankly I’m not sure my high school classmate has oranges, in the sense that I doubt she knows what American exceptionalism means. I also don’t know that my Tumblr friend has much in the way of apples, in that she’s already been out of high school for longer than two months and shows no signs of getting married.
Basically, I know a lot of people who otherwise would never have any connection with each other, and this is a long-winded way of getting at my original intention, which was to talk about my Tumblr friend’s statement that “American exceptionalism is a myth.”
At first glance, I disagree. At second, it’s more complicated than that, but it boils down to the same thing, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Let’s boil it down and see where we get.
I want to talk about patriotism. I know there are more people than my Tumblr friend who believe it to be, at worst, misguided and wrong, and at best, excessive. I would like to posit that those people have no idea what they’re talking about, at worst, and at best, are a bit confused as to what it actually is.
Things Patriotism Is Not
-a blind acceptance of everything a country ever does as gospel and gold
-an overly loud, obnoxious declaration of rampant love for said country similar to the love some people hold for sports teams
-an insistence that said country cannot make mistakes, said country’s leaders cannot screw up, etc.
-something unique to redneck conservatives
I would make a list of Things Patriotism Is but that list is a bit more complicated.
First of all, let me say this once and loudly so we don’t have to come back to it.
I BELIEVE AMERICA IS EXCEPTIONAL.
Because I was born here. Not to say that America became exceptional at the instant I was born (though that would be interesting because I was born on July 4), but to say that if I were born somewhere else, I would not believe that.
Does that make me wrong?
Honestly, it reminds me of the thing where my mother thinks I’m pretty. Why does she think that? Because I am her kid. If I were not her kid, would she still think it? Who’s to know. I personally wouldn’t care to find out, though that may be me expressing some problems with denial.
But think about this for a minute. If you have a mother who thinks her child is beautiful, you are not about to tell that mother she is wrong, are you? Because, in the mother’s eyes, that child is beautiful. She sees what is best of it. Is she wrong to see those things? No. Of course not.
Similarly, am I wrong to see the best of my country and love it? No. Of course I’m not.
Does that mother think her child is perfect? No. Of all people, the mother is probably most likely to know about the imperfections of her child. She sees the worst of it, too. She knows exactly where those flaws are. She may be contributing to some of them (and in the unlikely event that my mother is reading this, I promise I’m not drawing on my own experience).
Do I think my country is perfect? No. God no. Are you kidding? I am not the most likely to know about the imperfections of America, but I am not blind to them. I am well aware that we fail at a good handful of things. I don’t know exactly where those flaws are, but I am not ignorant of their existence, and I cannot rule out the possibility that I contribute to some of them.
Does the mother still love her child and think it is capable of great things? Yes. Yes, she does.
Do I still love my country and think it is capable of great things? Yes. Yes, I do.
Do I believe we are above the same rules that govern everyone else? No, indeed. One of C. S. Lewis’ most despicable characters, the White Witch, said that “The weight of the world is on our shoulders; we must be free from all rules.” (Uncle Andrew says it too, but his villainy is less easy to prove; he was mostly just an inept jerkbag.) And frankly, this mindset is very common to people who believe in their own personal exceptionalism, and it’s horrible. I am a firm believer that the rules will not and should not be the same for everyone (because everyone’s not ready for the same thing), but no one should be exempt from all rules.
Do I believe that American history contains enough moral travesty to disqualify us from having been exceptional? No. Howard Zinn (the guy who wrote People’s History of the United States) argues that American exceptionalism cannot be of divine origin because it did not have benign beginnings (citing the relations with Native Americans in the earlier centuries of this country). (I’m paraphrasing Wikipedia.)
I must say first that nobody said it was divine. The point of this country was to avoid the “Chosen by God to Be in Charge” modus operandi (see: King George). America is not exceptional because God or any other deity said it was.
I must say secondly that Zinn’s argument doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We cannot be exceptional because of past crimes? Let’s return to the mother and child example.
Child messes up. Mother continues to love child and consider it wonderful. Is the mother wrong to think her child is wonderful?
No. She is completely right. The child is the same person. Yes, it screwed up. Yes, it should try to fix it, apologize if necessary, et cetera. Has it suddenly stopped being what it was before? No.
Also in Wikipedia I find that the President of Ecuador said something like this in comment on American exceptionalism: “Does not this remind you of the Nazis’ rhetoric before and during World War II? They considered themselves the chosen race, the superior race, etc. Such words and ideas pose extreme danger.”
I have to agree. Belief in personal superiority does make one a bit dangerous. And by a bit I mean a lot.
But look at Germany now. Does the world love it any less? Certainly not.
If Germany can make a mistake as drastic and deathly as the Holocaust and is still capable of being a force for good, still capable of being das Land der Dichter und Denker, the land of scholars and poets, then America can make its mistakes and still be capable of being a force for good – can still be capable of being a country worth loving.
Let me say that again. America is still a country worth loving.
Patriotism, at its barest, is not much more than love.
So when I say I am a patriot, when I say I do believe that my country is exceptional, I do not mean that I justify our every action, that I have forgotten the existence of our mistakes or the ramifications of our failures. I mean that I love my country for its goodnesses, for its capabilities, successes and strengths. And I even love it for the fact that it uses a different system to measure distances and weather than the rest of the world.
None of this indicates anything wrong with America or me.
Frankly, when I looked it up, it did surprise me to know that a lot of historians actually endorse American exceptionalism. This from Richard Rose, a Scottish political scientist: “America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.”
But that doesn’t matter.
The point is, you love your country. You believe in its ability to do good in the world. You accept its individualities (even if that means always having to convert your units of measure and wondering why we’re the only ones in the world who do xyz). You admit its mistakes and hope it fixes them. And did I mention you love it? You love the hell out of it.
If loving something doesn’t make you proud that it exists, then that’s just how you swing, but my thought is that the more you love someone (or something), the more you know about its struggles, and the more you know about someone’s (or something’s) struggles, the more you are aware of the effort they have put in to keep going, and the more you are aware of that effort, the prouder you are of them. Or it.
So yes, I am proud to be an American. I always will be.