Last week, the Daily printed a column in which Brittany Smith heralded the passage of President Barack Obama’s health care bill as the point when she no longer felt ashamed to be an American (Reforming patriotism, 03/26/2010). Smith went on to defend progressive values in a manner that left many of us grimacing in discomfort.
Smith failed to understand that ideals may be praiseworthy and profound, while their actual application may fail to live up to that standard. More egregiously, she argued from one isolated incident that our nation had taken a bold leap towards fulfilling our ideals.
I was therefore pleased to come across Christopher Johnson’s response, entitled (I don’t live in Smith’s America, 03/29/2010). Unfortunately, the title is the only endearing quality of Johnson’s viewpoint. He takes Smith’s caricature of the “ugly American” to the extreme and presents violent jingoistic rhetoric as a substitute for “patriotism.” “Most citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan are thankful for their liberation,” he remarks snidely. “Just ask any soldier.” Any reasonable person would be at a loss for words when confronted with such ignorance.
This, then, is the unfortunate state of political discourse in the opinion pages of the Daily today. One side argues that everything is fine with America because Obama is committed to “creating a baseline level of equality for everyone.” (I won’t enumerate everything that’s wrong with that sentence.) The other side responds that everything is fine with America because we go around the world invading countries that have never attacked us. The end result of either mindset is the same — the true principles that make America great are obscured as well as the sad fact that we have failed to uphold the sanctity of those principles.
America was founded as the “city upon a hill,” meant to be a shining beacon of liberty and justice, a light unto the rest of the world. That dream is indeed elusive today, lost amid war and oppression, imperialism, racism and carpet bombs, red alerts and Guantanamo Bay. Some of us have never seen that dream because our vision is clogged with the blood and sweat of all those — at home and abroad — for whom that dream has turned into a nightmare.
But it’s called a dream for a reason — it doesn’t exist, indeed, it cannot exist unless we work to make it real. Anything worth achieving requires effort. The American dream is a problematic dream. But what a dream it is.
The nature of an individual’s love or hatred for America can be understood as a function of two variables: their understanding of what America represents and their expectations for what America ought to be. Some of those who see potential for good in “America” — whatever that means — will blindly wave the flag of “patriotism” and passively accept the reality with which they are presented. Others, meanwhile, will dedicate their lives to maximizing that potential and to transforming our nation into a living embodiment of the ideals that it purports to represent.
Many Americans are ashamed at and justifiably angered by irresponsible actions our government has undertaken over the years. But to conflate those actions with the essence of America is an absurd and undyingly cynical leap in reasoning. On the other hand, to proclaim that since, in theory, our values are great, we are automatically “superior to the rest of the world” is a similarly defeatist and dangerous mindset. To hold such a view is to sell the greatness of America for far less than what it is worth. It borders on the edge of being unpatriotic in the extent to which it ascribes an inherent entitlement to our nation, independent of our conduct and our faithfulness to our values.
At the end of the day, it was perhaps a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who said it best. “America,” he said, “is great as long as America is good. When America ceases to be good, America ceases to be great.” If we can understand that much, then perhaps we can aspire to a richer and more fulfilling vision of patriotism.
Hamdan Azhar is a Rackham student.