It’s that day of the year when I get all sappy and red and white and blue and I don’t care who thinks I’m corny or what stranger shushes me when I sing the Star Spangled Banner in public (that actually happened to me once!).
But let’s talk about why we get all gooey over our country. A lot has been said about it lately, in relation to the presidential campaigns; about what patriotism means and who comes up deficient.
But why love and celebrate the nation at all? Patriotism is a remarkably common sentiment found in every part of the world and yet an essential part of the proposition of patriotism is that “my country is special and uniquely worthy of devotion.” I don’t begrudge anyone that sentiment. I just think that in America’s case, it just happens to be true.
That’s why I think insistence on patriotism solely as a “my country right or wrong” idea tragically limits it to that most ordinary brand of patriotism that Americans are in a unique position to transcend. Patriots in each country love it just because it’s theirs. As the word “patriotism” implies, it is similar in character to the conviction that “my Dad is the greatest Dad in the world” (or “my Mom” or “my kid” or “my family” generally).
But I genuinely believe that ours is a country that can make a substantive case that it “is special and uniquely worthy of devotion.” First of all, it’s the only country in the world founded on an aspiration: “in order to form a more perfect union” — aspiration is our inheritance.
We didn’t form that union to glorify a king or some other venerable institution. We did it to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
And by the way, it’s “We the People of the United States” that formed this union. Not a king, not a church, not the memory of great empires or mythological gods, not the standard bearers of a racial or cultural heritage, despite the fact that the founders were Englishmen, clearly building on an English tradition of “freeborn” citizenry. They didn’t form a union as legatees of a shared ancestry, but as participants in a shared vision. That’s why I, an American with no genetic lineage to the founders can rightfully claim them as mine and rightfully talk about them as “we.” That’s not true anywhere else in the world.
On this anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, why am I quoting from the Constitution? Because the Constitution charts the course for making good on the promise we made to ourselves and each other in the Declaration. That promise, of course was to live in freedom, as equals, protected in our inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
And let’s remember the crowning words of that promise: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
[cover photo by Koli Mitra]