Americans are not uniquely patriotic, but many of us express the patriotism common to citizens of empires throughout history. This patriotism equates happiness with military and economic might. This patriotism unironically claims that ours is the best country, not just in the modern world, but in the history of the world. This patriotism is about competition, about superlatives, about being the biggest, best, smartest, strongest.
Our patriotism also particularly celebrates the dominating achievements of powerful white men — the conquests, the declarations, the inventions, the triumphs. When we think of those people most commonly identified as American heroes, the list mostly includes white men: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Douglas Macarthur, or more recently Steve Jobs.
This patriotism stands in contrast with a love of nation that is based on care for the land and the people. This love celebrates the unique colors and flavors, individual interactions and contributions of all. Of course, this love also takes on a problematic shade in a country where the land was taken from its Indigenous inhabitants, and where the original infrastructure was built by enslaved people and funded by profits from their labor and sale. What does it mean to love a land that was stolen? What does it mean to love other people whose ancestors were brought here against their will?
So what are we to do? Should we set aside collective love? Should we find another outlet for this love in our local communities, in our schools, in our jobs? Or could we, as mixed as that emotion can be, still find a way to express a love for the people, the land, the non-human animals and plants, the places and spaces that make up the United States of America? I believe that, in some instances, we can.
Not every citizen must love the United States, and not every citizen is able, based on their own experiences and those of their ancestors. There is room in this nation for a variety of feelings about the place we call our common home, and we don’t all need to love a space to inhabit it. It is entirely reasonable for Indigenous Americans, Black Americans, and other Americans of color to be ambivalent about, or even to hate the United States, based on what their people have endured, and on what they continue to endure.
But I believe that those of us who love this nation should do so with a rigorous love, one that not only doesn’t require us to agree with everything we do and have done, but that in fact requires us to hold up a mirror to ourselves and others. As James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Patriotism, for those who do feel it, should be based on a model of actual, mature love. This love requires us to call out when those we love are acting dishonestly and unkindly. This love asks us to recognize growth. This love sometimes means that we walk away from the relationship when we have been hurt too much. This love recognizes the assets and the flaws, honoring strengths and working to improve challenges.
I am saddened that our only options seem to be jingoistic nation-worship or a sense of ironic detachment from our national community. We cannot heal the wounds we cannot see, and we cannot heal the wounds we do not care to heal. If we are to heal this nation — to address the wounds of systemic racism, climate injustice, lack of housing, poor healthcare, and so many others — we must recognize our flaws and dedicate ourselves to addressing them. We may do so because we want to improve the conditions of our local community. And some of us may do so because of the contradictory, troubling, deep love that we still have for the people, creatures, and lands that make up this nation.
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