I was speaking yesterday about Ronald Reagan. “He did a lot of good for America,” someone told me.
“Well, you can’t understand, but for one – he made us proud to be Americans again.”
Coming down off the 1960’s and 70’s, when Americans were confronted with the unpleasant realities of racism, war, and misogyny portrayed in some ways for the first time in the public medium via television, Ronald Reagan’s message of “it’s okay” seemed to be a wild hit for a certain class of Americans. Yet this message falls flat for me, because I am too aware of the things America has done that it should be ashamed of. Every thing we could think of seems to be tainted in some way because every positive quality seems to be as the result of some sort of dispossession – whether it be of labor, land, or life.
Emma Goldman once described patriotism perfectly in saying:
Is it love of one’s birthplace, the place of childhood’s recollections and hopes, dreams and aspirations? Is it the place where, in childlike naivete, we would watch the passing clouds, and wonder why we, too, could not float so swiftly? The place where we would count the milliard glittering stars, terror-stricken lest each one “an eye should be,” piercing the very depths of our little souls? Is it the place where we would listen to the music of the birds and long to have wings to fly, even as they, to distant lands? Or is it the place where we would sit on Mother’s knee, enraptured by tales of great deeds and conquests? In short, is it love for the spot, every inch representing dear and precious recollections of a happy, joyous and playful childhood?
If that were patriotism, few American men of today would be called upon to be patriotic, since the place of play has been turned into factory, mill, and mine, while deepening sounds of machinery have replaced the music of the birds. No longer can we hear the tales of great deeds, for the stories our mothers tell today are but those of sorrow, tears and grief.
What, then, is patriotism? “Patriotism, sir, is the last resort of scoundrels,” said Dr. [Samuel] Johnson. Leo Tolstoy, the greatest anti-patriot of our time, defines patriotism as the principle that will justify the training of wholesale murderers; a trade that requires better equipment in the exercise of man-killing than the making of such necessities as shoes, clothing, and houses; a trade that guarantees better returns and greater glory than that of the honest workingman…
So the voting class and the class that contributes to political campaigns depends greatly on the kind of sappy patriotism and revisionism spoonfed by Reagan and his inheritors. No more words about raped nuns in South America, race riots, women raped in South Asia, or millions shipped from Africa to plantations across the south… no more words about nuclear warfare, free trade zones, illegals dying of thirst in the desert, or the crack addict who can’t call his mother from prison because he’s forgotten her number… let’s all gather around and remember the good things about America – the ephemeral je ne sais quoi that fills our hearts when we stand hand-over-heart at baseball games while the national anthem blares over the loudspeaker.
In this vacuum of history, this willful denial, we see a new kind of American character emerging – that of reality television, fast food, strip clubs, easy credit, and housing subdivisions. With no historical heritage, our future can be shaped at the whim of those who control our medium. We fiercely defend consumerism as if it is what will justify our existence as a nation, as if this is what the pilgrims starved and Abe Lincoln chopped wood for!
Still, I feel pangs of guilt when I write about the United States in such a stoic, disinterested, and mostly harsh way. After all – I am an American. My parents are American and my grandparents are American. My children will be American. And I love America – the rolling plains, the staggering mountains, and tranquil beaches. The only heritage I know of is that taught to me in school books as a young child, delightful stories of Jackie Robinson and pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. I cling to the mythology of my history while accepting its ersatz nature. I try and glean values and principles from stories of hard work and rugged individualism. I’m unwilling to so quickly throw it all onto the scrap heap. Here I become a hypocrite: I believe America can be salvaged by going back to this mythology and trying to sincerely adopt the values our textbooks taught us.
Yet it cannot be at the expense of history. We cannot wipe our slate clean by pretending it doesn’t exist. Refusing the face the truth, the bloody birth of the United States, ensures that such bloodshed will continue. Why not instead try and live up to the sacrifices and suffering of those who came before? Why not feel we owe something to the rest of the humanity instead of pretending we have done it all ourselves?
America is a strong nation. Between the oceans lay a land of rich natural resources and sometimes good and honest people who are willing to work hard. Ask Americans if they’d put time into making their country a better place and so many would step forward. Don’t let them shove a fantasy down your throat to take your future. Instead reclaim the fantasy and inspire yourselves to do better and live up to the gifts you were so blessed to be born into.