Performing Patriotism

“It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.”
― Aristotle

Watching US patriotism shaming from across an ocean and as an expat is a really enlightening and thought provoking experience, especially in an election season. If you don’t perform patriotism the way a person or group wants you to, the rage machine that can be and often is mobilized against you can be fierce. The group of my friends who are into sport are currently up in arms (on both sides of the issue) about Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit for the national anthem. A couple of weeks ago people dragged one of the most celebrated female athletes in the country both for her hair and her forgetting/choice/who knows to put/not put a hand on her heart during the same national anthem. I remember a brouhaha a couple election cycles ago about the fact that a candidate wasn’t wearing a flag pin on his lapel and what that said about his inner commitment to the US constitution. Pick a current topic of policy (or lack thereof) in the current presidential campaign and enjoy the flurry of commentary about how the candidate in question is fundamentally un-American.

I grew up in a military family, living on or near military bases multiple times in childhood. I remember how the national anthem was played at the close of day, during which everyone in earshot would stop and remain still for the duration. Flag ceremonies were de rigeur. The symbols of national identity were everywhere, up to and including my father’s collar. I consider myself fairly patriotic, even though I am openly critical of my country and the many challenges it faces in living up to its own ideas enshrined in revolutionary documents. But outside of the structure of the military, civil service, and local/federal government life, I also don’t see the been or benefit in some of the hyper patriotism (not to say nationalism) I see in the US displayed by many civilians. I find it strange, for instance, that the national anthem is even played at a football game, which has nothing to do with the body politic or any workings of government at all.

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And I have been really disheartened to see a strain of American discourse weaponize patriotism–or rather how others “perform” patriotism. The vitriol heaped on a football player for exercising the very rights in question has baffled me. I’ve been far, far more angry to see a convicted rapist walk free for good behavior after serving just half of a six month sentence (ridiculous in its own right). In the election cycle, the hyperbolic scrutiny and wild interpretations about this candidate’s or that’s loyalty to the government has frankly veered into the realm of the bizarre. Meanwhile there has been a notable lack of policy debate about how the government should apply in people’s lives.

Perhaps it has to do with my experience with faith and religion, but I view patriotism in very similar ways to belief: something deeply personal, highly individualized, and fundamentally uninterpretable by other people. I can both criticize and love my country. A candidate for office cannot be evaluated based on jewelry. Flag ceremonies are insufficient barometers of loyalty. Sitting for the national anthem is not an act of treason. Neither is failing to place an appendage on another body party. There is no person or entity that can accurately measure devotion of any kind in another human and I’m struggling to cite an instance where a person or entity has tried without a whole host of interior motives behind them.

Now as a “stranger in a strange land” again, this time in the secular sense of being an expat I sometimes wonder if this commitment to displays or performances of patriotism is even good for Americans as a people. Does the devotion to the outward trappings actual result in devotion to the underlying principles? I have personally found that display is more often is tied to ideology than ideals, and political ideology that lacks the ability to be challenged is frightening to me. If history shows us anything, it’s that that way danger lies.

I’ve heard more than one American here in Britain talk disparagingly of British patriotism as being “tepid.” By comparison the Brits certainly are less loud about it, but most I’ve met are privately, staunchly proud of their nation. They acknowledge conflicts or disappointments with aspects of government or history or any number of things, and are perfectly willing to criticize themselves, but woe betide any outsider who may try to do the same. Americans are just as fierce about outside criticism but we are, strangely, equally or even more fierce when criticism comes from within in my experience. I’ve seen Yanks more likely to turn on one another than any outsider–I think that inability, at least in my opinion, to accept internal criticism more than anything explains the ridiculous and ineffective state of American politics at the moment. We seem hell bent on presenting a united front to the world, and willing to descend to insane levels of infighting in pursuit of it.

I don’t have any solutions to this problem except to say that I don’t like it and it disappoints me. I hate patriotism shaming and at a core level, I am mistrustful of anyone who partakes in it. And, as nationalistic sensibilities spike all over the world, I cannot but wonder if it’s dangerous.

6 thoughts on “Performing Patriotism”

  1. Yes to all of this.

    I grew up in Canada to age 30, then moved to NY.

    I simply don’t get why Americans are so aggressive about their patriotism — as if doing so more quietly is “less than.” Canadians are much less so, don’t hang flags everywhere, don’t have a Pledge of Allegiance…yet stop 100 of them on the street and ask if they’re proud of their country? (see also: free healthcare, very UN American) and the answer is likely a yes.

    It’s possible to have differences of opinion and remain civil — but I see very little of that here. I see people beating the hell out of one another verbally and on social media for not falling into line — in a nation that rabbits on about “freedom” and “liberty.” Get serious.

    1. I’m personally dismayed by the deep irony of being proud of freedom of opinion and expression, and the rage towards those who invoke it. In both directions of the spectrum, I might add.

  2. i feel like patriotism needs to be added to the religion/politics/money trifecta of Things We Don’t Discuss In Polite Company. not meaning that people shouldn’t feel free to express (or not-express) their patriotism as they see fit, BUT that it shouldn’t be meta-discussed in a way where anyone is judged for “how patriotic” (or “what type of patriotic”) they are.

    personally, i’m pretty damn patriotic. not that i believe the US can do no wrong, or that we’re “better” than [insert nation/nationality here], but i love the values our country was founded on and the makeup of our population: we’re rejects, go-getters, risk-takers, and survivors who either fled persecution, sought opportunity, or were thrown into a terrible situation (slavery, internal displacement and genocide of american indians, etc) and persevered. we’re young and overconfident, but we’re also diverse and driven.

    all of which is to say that i often feel the opposite pressure to what you’re describing. my social group is young, liberal, educated, and in many cases artists and/or humanitarians. they (and i) tend to have liberal social views. within this circle, if you’re not vocally criticizing the US, you’re suddenly suspect. it’s ~cool~ to make fun of americans and to exaggerate (greatly) the flaws in our policies and programs.

    this is just as unproductive as calling someone “unamerican” for choosing not to stand during the anthem. default disdain is no better than default glorification–and more importantly, i find the zeitgeist of anti-americanism among educated middle-class millennials to be problematic NOT because US policies are above reproach, but because ranting about the US as though it’s a corrupt and crumbling fascist dictatorship is really, REALLY privileged perspective. it’s extraordinarily dismissive to the vast majority of people in the world–people who live in places where rights are FAR more limited. it’s the epitome of taking things for granted.

    none of this is to say that anyone should feel obligated to perform patriotism, or to praise the US unequivocally. but we also shouldn’t feel pressured to bash ourselves or our country unequivocally. it’s possibly to be proudly patriotic while still advocating reform, and one shouldn’t preclude the other.

    …which is why it’s probably best if we treat people’s patriotism, and their expressions thereof, as personal matters rather than open season for character judgment.

    you’re so welcome for the novel, by the way. 😛

    1. I completely agree about it being in vogue to critique the US with ridiculously exaggerated tirades about how we’re a fascist country. You don’t get to DO that in ACTUAL fascist countries. Privilege doesn’t even begin to describe it!

      I’m pretty patriotic as well, I’m just more quiet about it than some people, including within my own family. I find the American narrative of a country founded on incredibly high principles that we historically have failed to live up to…but have persevered and fought and constantly worked towards pretty impressive. That whole process of constantly forming a “more perfect” union out of imperfection is amazing.

      I wonder if location has a lot to do with these opposing trends we notice. It makes an inverted sense to me that it’s easier to criticise a place where you live, and easier to emphatically support and cheer on the motherland from afar. I completely agree that no one should feel pressured to bash or praise, and it’s interesting to see pressure both ways on the rise. It seems to be part of the polarising trends across the board.

      1. i do think there’s something to be said for the geography (and demography). i think the trends i tend to see are because of my social group and because i’m in a city, and of course this general attitude was even more pervasive with the same social group when i was living in ny (and attending a school where the student body was both quite liberal and quite privileged–such INTENSE opining about such objectively small issues!). but i definitely see more of the opposite, ie loud demands for loud patriotism, when i’m in my parents’ rural-ish southern town or my grandparents’ small midwestern town (and talking to boomers as opposed to millennials).

        polarization and sensationalism are the strategies driving this election cycle (and this immediate micro-era). totally encourages productive conversation and bipartisan progress for the greater good…lol.

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