Thursday, February 7, 2013

My Country, 'Tis of Thee...

I've always been of two minds about patriotism. On the one hand, I honestly believe that the United States of America is the last great hope of mankind. On the other hand, I'm keenly aware of our failings, both historical and contemporary. I still get choked up when I hear "The Star-Spangled Banner," but I'm angry when I see militant bigots (who'd happily have left my grandparents to die in Germany, Russia and Poland) style themselves "patriots."

Maybe instead of asking who's "really" patriotic we ought to be asking what it is we should be patriotic about. What is the United States?  If you want a geographical definition that's easy, and the boundaries are clear, even if you include places like American Samoa. Is all this territory what we should be patriotic about? Sure, we've got majestic purple mountains, fruited plains, all that and more, and if our cities aren't quite alabaster maybe we can still fix them. But lots of countries have that stuff. We get emotional over them because they're ours, just as the Europeans get emotional over their various Alps and the Nepalese, the Himalayas. 

How about our struggles and conquests? We've fought wars agaist tyrranical empires and saved uncounted millions in the process. But then we've also fought among ourselves, taken a good bit of our country from weaker neighbors, wasted lives in ill-conceived and poorly managed conflicts. We're certainly no worse and most likely better in that respect than any other country, kingdom, empire or tribe throughout history, but we probably shouldn't be singing about it. 

How about domestically? We've taken in millions from all parts of the world, all those huddled masses who could breathe more freely here than wherever they were born. My family was among them. But what did all those masses get when they arrived? Not joyful welcome. Most often not even grudging acceptance. What they got was a chance to fight for a better place in the world, and often it was a fight with real casualties. That others, born here, had to fight against our sins of slavery and Jim Crow as well as garden-variety bigotry
hardly inspires pride. That still others had their freedom and hard-won progress stripped away by our own government is in stark and shameful contrast to our ideals of equal opportunity. Once again, being better in this regard than any other nation throughout history should encourage us to try harder, but isn't the stuff of which Independence Day celebrations should be made. 

So, finally, what is? We need to ask ourselves what the United States is, really. What makes us a nation, what allows us to keep trying to do better despite our human failings and those of our founders. If there's anything we can be proud of, anything we can celebrate, it's that.

 It starts with a phrase that was unique in its concept and is still unique in its spirit:
"We, the People of the United States..."

There is nothing like this document in the history of the world. The Constitution is the United States. Without it all the rest is just...scenery. Politics. Bombast.  Without the touchstone of the Constitution the geographic and political entity on our maps is just another empire, fated to die in fire and blood like every other empire before it. My loyalty, my patriotism, is always and forever to the Constitution of the United States of America.

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