Sunday, August 29, 2004

My Country Tis of Thee

I've been watching the Olympics. A lot. Last night as I watched yet another medal ceremony where the Star Spangled Banner played for a gold medalist, I thought about patriotism. You see, there is an edict that prohibits athletes from having an "extreme emotional outburst" on the medal platform. You can lose your medal, in fact. Crying is of course allowed, but the idea is that they don't want someone to become overly charged and start gloating on the podium.

I watched American runners showboating after a semi-final race. When asked last night if they were happy with "only" a silver, one member of a relay team replied "I'm not" in a haughty tone. It made me think about what "Old Glory" means today. When I see an American flag sticker on a car, I cringe. When I see a yellow ribbon or "United We Stand" in the window of a minivan, I sigh. But why? Why should a display of patriotism annoy, disgust, or shame me?

The answer is simple: today, we have exchanged patriotism for nationalism. Patriotism is pride in one's country. Nationalism is the doctrine that your country's culture and interests are superior to all others. Most Americans have a smug sense of security that we are somehow better than everyone else. That they want to BE us. How arrogant! How deluded! September 11th shifted our country's viewpoint. No longer was it enough to be proud of America; now we needed to look down on other countries, almost to hate them. As if they were somehow responsible. As if non-Americans could not be trusted. Soon came the US Patriot Act, institutionalizing this attitude. Now people must explain themselves if their name isn't American enough, if they speak with the slightest hint of an accent, or even if they visit friends and family outside the country.

When we popularize songs with lines like "with a boot to your ass, it's the American way," haven't we long ago crossed a line? When we view "other" as inherently evil for no reason other than that it's not us, aren't we engaging in the same kind of blind hatred and violence as Al Qaida? But is it possible to be patriotic without engaging in nationalism? I remember a discussion the SAFE Project Board had after the attack on the World Trade Center. We debated putting up a flag like other businesses. We finally decided against it, as we feared non-Americans would feel we weren't welcoming to all, and would not seek help for domestic violence or sexual assault. Wouldn't that be another crime, another loss?

Don't misunderstand me. I am PROUD to be an American. I am thankful to be born into this country and enjoy the life made possible by 2 centuries of struggle, sacrifice, and internal conflict. But it wasn't something I chose or can control, just as those from other countries cannot determine their lineage. Being born in the US does NOT make me, or anyone else, superior to others. The most I can do is try to be the best person possible, bringing honor to myself, my family, and my country. And that means being proud of my country, even when I disagree with its leadership or actions. It also means respecting other countries and their equals.

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