Posts Tagged ‘American patriotism’

Does the USA need a new founding myth?

September 7, 2021

The U.S Constitutional Convention, 1789

A myth is not necessarily false.  It is a story that people tell about themselves.

The founding myth of the USA is the idea that we are a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The American dilemma, as Gunnar Myrdal wrote in his classic 1944 book on race and racism in the USA, is the incompatibility of what he called the American creed with American reality.  The great sin of us contemporary white Americans as a group is the refusal to face up to this contradiction.

Most of us Americans like to think of the USA as the land of the free and the home of the brave, and don’t like to look at evidence that this isn’t so.  That’s why, for example, so many white Southerners insist that the Civil War was fought over state’s rights, not slavery.

As a boy, I was taught by my parents and teachers, including my Sunday school teachers, that everyone deserved equal rights regardless of race, creed or color, and that everyone, regardless of social standing, should be treated with courtesy and respect. I believed that being a good person and a good American were one and the same thing.

My core beliefs are still the same.  My opinions have changed radically over the course of my life, and especially within the past 10 or 20 years.  Like Albert Camus, I want to love justice and still love my country, and struggle to reconcile these loves.

But the USA as a nation is turning its back on the historic American creed even as an aspirational goal.

MAGA Republicans normalize voter suppression.  Woke Democrats normalize censorship.

We have normalized military aggression, torture, assassinations, bombing of civilians, corporate crime and imprisonment of dissidents and whistleblowers.

Although the American founding myth is fading, a new myth cannot be conjured up just by calling for one.  The power of a myth depends on believers thinking of it, not as a myth, but as just the way things are.

If you recognize a myth as a myth, it has no power over you, although the afterglow of your previous belief may persist for a time.

The most likely candidate for a new unifying myth is a patriotism based on American exceptionalism rather than historic American ideals.  During the past 20 years, we Americans have been called upon to take pride in the USA not because of our freedom and democracy, but our might and power.

Patriotism is defined as unconditional support for war and domination.  The military is our most respected institution.


The toast of Stephen Decatur

November 11, 2016

Our country, in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong.
    ==The toast of Stephen Decatur (authentic version)

Our country, may she always be in the right!
But right or wrong, our country!
    ==The toast of Stephen Decatur (commonly quoted version)

My country, right or wrong!
If right, to be kept right.
If wrong, to be set right
`    ==Carl Schurz

“My country, right or wrong” is a thing no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case.  It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.”
    ==G.K. Chesterton

Stephen Decatur

Stephen Decatur

Until I looked it up, I thought the toast of Stephen Decatur was, “Our country, may it always be in the right, but right or wrong—our country!”

I could raise a glass to that toast.   My country, right or wrong, is still my country.  This doesn’t mean I have to go along when my country is in the wrong.  It does mean that whatever America’s crimes and follies, I am part of it, and it is part of me.

But “always successful” in war and diplomacy?  That is impossible, either for an individual or a nation, and, furthermore, some kinds of success are not good, either for a nation or for an individual.

Love of country should be like love of family.  Too many people think love of country is like love of God.


My country, both right and wrong

July 5, 2014


The American naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur, like to offer the following after-dinner toast in the late 1810s.

Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!

The immigrant newspaper publisher, Carl Schurz, founder of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, offered this toast in 1872.

My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

The worst mistake an individual, or a community, can make about themselves is to think they are always right and never wrong.   The second worst mistake an individual, or community, can make is to think they are always wrong and never right.

I love my country, I love my family and I love myself, but I don’t make the mistake of thinking my country, my family or myself are perfect.

The great danger of teaching children that the USA (or any other country) is always in the right, and never in the wrong, is that, when they find out this is not so, they go to the opposite extreme and reject everything about their heritage.

I love my country not because it is perfect, but because it is my country.

The United States is an exceptional[1] nation because our basis of unity consists of a set of ideals, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and a set of laws, as laid down in our Constitution.   The Constitution is the more important of the two.  The oaths of loyalty sworn by new citizens, the military and the President are to the Constitution.

But the Constitution and the Declaration did not come out of nowhere.  They are part of the heritage of British liberty under law, which is part of the heritage of Western civilization, which is part of the heritage of the whole human race, which is part of the cosmic scheme of things.

I don’t recall who it was that asked, if you don’t love your country, which you have seen, how you can love humanity, which you have not seen?  That’s how I think of patriotism.


Memorial Day music: Last Post, Taps, Il Silenzio

May 27, 2013

Melissa Venema was 13 years old when she performed this trumpet solo in 2008 at Maastricht, the Netherlands, in 2008.  It sounds to my ear like Taps, a bugle call I heard every evening in 1957 at Fort Eustis, Va., when the flag was lowered at sundown.  Taps is a shorter version of Last Post, which is traditionally played at military funerals through the English-speaking world.

I wondered if the performance had any connection with the annual Memorial Day ceremony held by Dutch people at the American Military Cemetery in the Netherlands at Margarten, just six miles east of Maastricht.  This cemetery holds Americans who died fighting in World War Two to drive the German armies from the Netherlands.  It originally contained about 18,000 graves, but some American remains were shipped home, and the cemetery now has 8,301 plots.

Each dead American has been adopted by a Dutch family, who try to obtain photos and learn all they can about this particular person’s life, and who pay their respects at the graveside every year.   I was touched to learn this.   However, as it happens, Melissa Venema’s trumpet solo has nothing to do this this.  She was playing Il Silenzio, which is, I am told by Wikipedia, an Italian pop music selection composed by trumpeter Nini Rosso, based in an Italian cavalry bugle call.

No matter.  She played beautifully, and we can think our own thoughts as we listen.   We can remember the brave American soldiers, and also the brave Dutch Resistance fighters, who gave their lives to keep their countries free.


NC gun blogger lunches with fellow Americans

August 22, 2012

Reading this post by Sean D. Sorrentino on An NC Gun Blog made me feel proud and grateful to be an American.

I sat down to lunch with some of my fellow Americans today [August 12].

In case you can’t tell, I’m the one in the middle.

I went to the Sikh temple in Durham, NC. I showed up at about 11:30 and went inside. The rules are that you must take off your shoes and wear something on your head. They were kind enough to loan me a hat that looks like a surgical cap.

What I heard wouldn’t have been out of place at any random Christian church in the nation. Peace, love, equality, goodwill towards all men, that sort of thing.  They made good use of technology too.  They had a computer set up to display running translations of the songs they were singing.  I’ve not been in church in a long time, so I don’t know if that’s done in any Christian churches to display the particular hymns being sung or for the readings, but it was really helpful for me to follow along.

After about 45 minutes of singing and playing (it was more of a performance than a sing along) we had some speakers.  There were Sikhs as well as guest speakers.  *** ***
*** ***  The sight of the flag makes me happy.  I believe in America and in Americans.  I take second place to no one in love for my country.  The Sikh speakers, especially the President of the temple, exceeded me in patriotism by a long shot.  America is not blood, and it’s not soil.  America is ideas, and the people who believe them.  These were Americans.  They might have been born here or far away.  But once they started talking about America, the “best” and “safest country in the world,” you could tell that they were Americans.  These are not scare quotes, these are direct quotes from the speakers.  Thomas Jefferson might have had a problem understanding the accents, but not the sentiments.
And now for the funny part.  There must be some sort of gun enthusiast radar.  I don’t know if they found me or I found them, but we found each other.  The guys I was sitting next to were both Sikh and gun owners.  We talked about guns, and we’ll be getting together sometime soon to go shooting. ***  ***  I was … treated to a discussion of how banning guns would not change anything.  I was told that criminals would get guns no matter what the laws, and that taking guns from the honest people would only make things worse.  In short, it was a discussion pretty much like any that you would read on any pro-gun blog.
Then we had a tasty lunch.

via An NC Gun Blog.

My brother and sister-in-law live in a part of California’s agricultural region, which is said to resemble the Punjab in climate and where there is a well-respected Sikh community.  My sister-in-law teaches school, and years ago there was a conflict over whether little Sikh boys could come to school with daggers in scabbards, which was a violation of the school’s no-weapons policy.  They worked out a pragmatic compromise whereby the boys would wear their daggers, but they would be welded into the scabbard so the boys couldn’t stab anybody.  A few of the more strict Sikh families sent the boys to school with empty scabbards and then gave them their daggers when they came home.  I always liked this story, because it showed how Americans of differing heritage can, with good will, work out their differences.

Sean D. Sorrentino and I probably would disagree on many things, but not about how American patriotism as loyalty not to a race or ethnic group, but to the Constitution and to American freedom and democracy.

Click on I had lunch with my fellow Americans today to read the whole post.


The American credo divides and unites us

July 4, 2011

The United States is exceptional in being founded not on loyalty to a monarch or charismatic leader, nor on identification with a racial or ethnic group, but on a set of ideas.   We Americans take this for granted, but foreign visitors do not.

Here’s how the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton saw us in the 1920s:

The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed.  America is the only nation in the world that is founded upon a creed.  That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.  It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice and that their authority is for that reason just. …

Here’s how Canadian sociologist Sacvan Bercovitch saw us in the 1960s:

I crossed the border into the United States and found myself inside the myth of America … a country that despite its arbitrary frontiers, despite its bewildering mixture of race and creed, could believe in something called the True America, and could invest that patent fiction with all the moral and emotional appeal of a religious symbol. … Here was the Jewish anarchist Paul Goodman berating the Midwest for abandoning the promise; here, the descendent of American slaves, Martin Luther King, denouncing injustice as a violation of the American way; here, an endless debate about national destiny … conservatives scavaging for un-Americans, New Left historians recalling the country to its sacred mission. … It was a hundred sects and factions, each apparently different from the others, yet all celebrating the same mission.

Our American credo is based on two complementary documents, one radical and one conservative.  The radical document is the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration proclaims that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights, that governments are instituted to protect these rights, that there is a right of revolution in defense of those rights, and that 13 British colonies are free and independent states.  The conservative document is the Constitution.  It  joins 13 free and independent states into a nation to form a more perfect union, provide for the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

Independence Day, our patriotic holiday, commemorates the signing of the Declaration.  The President of the United States, naturalized citizens, members of the armed forces and federal officers swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution.  To understand the United States, it is necessary to understand both the Declaration and the Constitution.

Like the Bible, these documents do not interpret themselves, nor do they make clear what parts are for a particular time and situation, and what parts are truths for all time.  You can pull out quotes from either document to justify many different things.

We Americans have been fighting over the meaning of these documents almost since the signing of the Declaration and the ratification of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were both patriots who contributed greatly to the founding of the United States.  But they hated each other, and each thought the other a traitor to the principles of the American republic as they conceived.

During the Civil War, the Union and Confederate soldiers and statesmen each thought they were fighting for the basic principles of American liberty.  They were not equally right, but they were equally sincere.

In our own time, it is no different.  The Tea Party and the American Civil Liberties Union are fighting to defend basic Constitutional rights as they conceive them.  They are not equally right, but they are equally sincere.

All through American history, different groups of people have tried to define themselves as the true Americans and their opponents as the un-Americans.  This can be, and has been, a very bad thing, but sometimes it is justified.  At least when we argue about the meaning of Americanism, our common loyalty to the Constitution and the Declaration gives us a common point of departure.  Arguing over what it means to be an American is part of our American exceptionalism.