The headlines this past Independence Day were full of debates about how to understand and commemorate America’s past, especially its historic – and lingering – sins. Juneteenth, marking the emancipation of African Americans from slavery, was declared a national holiday for the first time this year. Republican state legislators are busy outlawing Critical Race Theory in public schools. The lead author of the of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which proposed to “reframe” American history by putting slavery at its center, has been embroiled in a dispute over a tenured appointment in a state university. In a country as divided as ours, these historical dustups should come as no surprise: we tell stories about our past in order to make sense of who we are, and there’s little broad agreement on that point, either. That’s a troubling reality for those of us who consider ourselves patriots, as most Americans still do.
These controversies arouse passions in part because they touch on something very basic to right-wing and left-wing temperaments. Conservatives tend to have a different orientation to the “in-group” than progressives do. They prize loyalty and reverence toward group identities, especially unchosen ones like the nation. America may not be perfect, according to this way of thinking, but its virtues and achievements far outweigh its crimes, which tend to be treated as aberrations. This perspective has different expressions, from high-minded paens to “American exceptionalism” to more populist eruptions of “love it or leave it.” Either way, it has a fundamental faith in the goodness of America, and a sense that magnifying its flaws means breaking faith with one another.
Progressives typically have no such compunctions. They may be the heirs of James Baldwin, who, because he loved America, “insisted on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Or they may reject the idea that the nation with so many oppressive blemishes has any patriotic claims on them at all, echoing Frederick Douglas when he bitterly asked “What is the 4th of July to the slave?” The left, especially the activist left, tends to find flag-waving expressions of patriotism vaguely embarrassing if not actively toxic, and if they see a golden thread in American history, it increasingly lies in a project of self-overcoming, a fitful and gradual emancipation from backwardness and privilege, still left unfinished.
The problem with believing in goodness as America’s special essence ought to be self-evident to anyone who considers themselves an heir to the Christian tradition, or really anyone who is particularly observant. We are a nation composed of human beings, with all the vices, follies, and corruption humans are prone to, both individually and corporately. Being American does not exempt us. When investigations were launched into the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, many congressional leaders flatly refused to accept the idea that American soldiers were capable of the wanton murder of hundreds of men, women, and children. Polls at the time showed widespread support for Lt. William Calley, the only officer ever tried for his part in the killings. People largely believed, or wanted to believe, that Calley was an honest and brave American soldier, and that he must have had good reason for what he did. That was a very human and understandable reaction. But it was wrong. Calley was a mass murderer, and he was ours. Nor was he unique. This is the country of Plymouth Rock, Ellis Island, Promontory Point, and Hollywood. It’s also the country of Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, Porvenir, Fort Pillow, Tulsa.
In reality, American social conservatives should be the last people to dismiss the idea that our nation could be entangled in injustice in a far-reaching way. To be pro-life is necessarily to believe that the laws, institutions, and culture of this country have been complicit in a tremendous atrocity for decades. How to recognize this truth and still be a patriot? One way is to insist that this too is another aberration, that the America of Roe v. Wade isn’t the “real America,” which still holds out from the tide of decadence in its rural redoubts. This is, as the kids say, cope. The same country that went to the moon and won the Cold War is the one that has pioneered abortion-on-demand and every other social upheaval that conservatives despise. Neither, if they are being honest with themselves, can they separate themselves so cleanly from their more liberal or secular neighbors to assign praise and blame for what our nation has become, both good and bad.
As for the left-wing critique of American exceptionalism, CS Lewis pointed out its pitfalls decades ago in an essay called “The Dangers of National Repentance.” In the process of criticizing the unchosen in-group, progressives habitually create a new ideological in-group that they very often cling to with greater strength (this is one reason the left tends to simply care more about politics than the right). The result is that the demand for the country atone for its misdeeds often amounts to an exercise of political and cultural power over the out-group of the less-enlightened. It allows the critic to “turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing but, first, of denouncing the conduct of others.” There is much to repent of in American history and in the American present. But as Lewis observes, repenting for oneself – or on behalf of a heritage with which one strongly identifies – is difficult work. Repenting on behalf of the “other,” on the other hand, gives free play to self-satisfaction and fanaticism. These are not qualities that build the broad-based solidarity that make a democratic society work.
“If you love America as it actually is, you necessarily rope yourself into loving something that includes people who don’t look like you, or think like you, or value everything you value, or even think much of you, but are as exactly as American as you are.”
I am, of course, painting with a broad brush here. But these opposed tendencies help to account for the difficulty we have as a nation in understanding ourselves, our what about our history and present is worth celebrating. How then do we love this massive, flawed, messy, endlessly complex thing called America? The size and diversity of the country makes this a thornier question than it might be for an Irishman or a Korean. Aside from a thin overlay of commercialized pop culture, what do we all have in common with each other? “Freedom,” maybe, or the “American Idea,” but as we’ve seen, nobody quite agrees on what those things mean. People of the more localist persuasion might see the whole project as a fool’s errand; America, they would say, is not a real thing, but an abstraction papering over a bureaucratic-capitalist empire lording over a collection of real organic communities. One may as well love the telephone company.
While I understand that view, I do not think it is quite right. The nation is, in a certain sense, an abstraction – an “imagined community” as one clever Marxist put it – but I am not convinced that makes it unreal. And while nationalism in its more grandiose flights of fancy is liable to make the nation out as a transcendent spiritual reality – a secular church – there is a more fruitful way to conceive of it. We are a community of communities, a lineage of lineages. To be American is to lay claim to particular landscapes and histories and ways of living that have been shaped by a common history and common experience. This collection is diverse and ever-changing and expanding, but it still marks us out as a people distinct in the world. For all that divides us, go to any busy foreign city, and you will notice that the visiting Americans have a way of making themselves stand out – and you yourself will feel it, too.
America has always been a land of grand ideas. It’s part of who we are. But what America is, is a country, not an idea, or God forbid, an ideology. Once we accept that, it makes it easier to see that America is not, cannot be, the property of any one political tribe. It is not the captive of any one narrative, which could never hope to offer the final word about what it is and has been. Like Walt Whitman, we are large; we contain multitudes.
America has had many founders, not just the Founders. We are, as the saying goes, a nation of immigrants – and also of pioneers, of people sold into bondage, and of people who made their home here for hundreds of generations. America is baseball, Mom, apple pie, and it is mah-jongg, tamales, and Bubbes. It is Spanish missions and tent revivals, Stephen Foster and hip hop. It is George Washington and Mother Cabrini and Sojourner Truth. It is the Pine Barrens and the Grand Tetons and South Central. It is bodegas, trailer parks, and tacky beachfront retirement homes.
All of that is to say that if you love America as it actually is, you necessarily rope yourself into loving something that includes people who don’t look like you, or think like you, or value everything you value, or even think much of you, but are as exactly as American as you are. As in every relationship, you do not have to like everything about the one you love, but you can’t pick and choose their every feature, either.
In truth, though, our differences are not a problem for a would-be patriot nearly so much as homogenizing economic and cultural forces are: the more that every place looks the same, the less chance we have to develop the authentic local patriotism that expands into wider attachments. We ought to love our country for much the same reasons we love our own towns and neighborhoods or even our own families, merely on a different scale: because it is ours, because we owe it gratitude for helping to make us what we are, and because it is one more sphere of action in which we are called to love our neighbor.
And if we love it in the best sense – it we are not merely sentimental patriots but those who will and work our country’s good – we will have to confront its flaws, and not only those that are convenient for own tribes and agendas. We will do so with a sense of our own fallenness, the limitations of our own vision, and a genuine sorrow at the necessity – like tending the wounds of a parent, as Burke described it.
America has its share of wounds – some old and scarred, some painfully fresh. If we are to see clearly enough to do something about them, we will also need to see what there is to love and preserve. And those things are broader, deeper, more complex and contradictory, than anybody’s partisan narrative. They demand of us a patriotism of generosity, tolerance, and humility.
Patrick Harris the chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.