July 4, 2017

Sometimes it’s not so easy to love this country.

The great patriotic displays on July 4th typically echo our great love of war. Bombs bursting in air, fireworks, rockets red glare. Tomahawks and drones. The new president even wanted a Soviet-style inauguration with rows of missile launchers driving down Pennsylvania Avenue. Many Americans would have loved it.

Today’s editorial sections were predictably full of appeals to American Exceptionalism — the Promise of America, the Dream of America, the Founding Fathers’ Challenge to Us All. They all fell flat because Americans are generally sick of promises and the Great America Again is just about all dreamed-out. People are working two and three jobs and still can’t afford medical care or a mortgage. Police are still murdering black people after centuries. We just won’t stop invading other countries, changing regimes, and slaughtering civilians.

But mainly, these patriotic invocations failed because we can no longer appeal to the America of Yesterday. All its sins and errors — and all the old worn narratives about the country — all have got to go.

Those who care to reckon with our history know just what kind of country it is. And there were plenty of reminders today as some commentators wrote about the country’s warts, even as others were celebrating our Exceptionalism. The late Howard Zinn reminded us ours is a country grown fat from conquest. Frederick Douglass, whom our commander-in-chief pretended to know personally, blasted the hollow democracy of slaveholders as an insult to black Americans. Michael Brenner wondered today whether it was time to finally pronounce dead America’s promises to the common man.

With economic insecurity, the very real possibility of dying without medical insurance, and rampant abuses of civil liberties, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness has become nothing but an empty slogan.

American democracy has certainly failed to live up to the hype, the anthems, the slogans, the appeals to raw nationalism — even the founding principles. More anthems and more nationalism haven’t helped. The day was always coming when we’d have to see that we’re just like every other people. Our democracy is just as imperfect and just as fragile. Nothing exceptional about that.

Love for a country has nothing to do with its clumsy symbols. The flag’s growing constellation is literally a record of territorial conquest. The national anthem has an ugly melody — just as it did when it was a British drinking song. The lyrics were penned by a slave holder. The White House, built with slave labor, is both a symbol of imperial power and a still-unresolved national sin.

Yet despite all this, this is where we live. It’s where we make our homes, make plans for the future, raise our families, drink the water, and involve ourselves in our communities. Progressives may not be out in the streets waving flags and setting off firecrackers, but there are other ways to love this country. And I think we’ve been out every night since January trying to demonstrate, and earn, that love.

Jon Schwarz has a thoughtful piece entitled “How to Love this Freaky Country” and it’s worth the read. Peter Laarman writes about how we need to re-frame the tired old “promise of America” narrative into something more constructive and, yes, more revolutionary. Lyz Lenz, editor of the Rumpus, kicked off a series of essays on patriotism that run throughout the month. These are views that look forward without trying to sanitize the past.

But then there is America itself. There is something mysterious and beckoning about our country. Or perhaps it’s the challenge of understanding the essence of something so vast, as Alexis de Tocqueville tried to do when touring the young nation. The old Simon and Garfunkel song “America” captures this idea so well that the Sanders campaign got permission to use it, repeating the refrain:

All come to look for America.

When interviewed, Art Garfunkel understood the song’s appeal: “We’ve come to look for the country and we don’t really know who we are. We never knew who we were. We’re still working out what Alexander Hamilton was working out: how do we fuse and become a united States of America…”

It is indeed a wonder to walk down the street of a major American city and see so many diverse faces. It is a miracle to drive across the country and see some of the most beautiful geography on the planet. It is astonishing that so much conflict can be packed together with so much amity, and that we have managed to stick together all this time. There is much to hate, much that needs change, but also much to love.

I wish everyone a Happy Independence Day, as we all continue to look for America.