What does it mean to love one's country?
This week, we’ll explore:
What does it mean to love one’s country?
Positive vs. Negative identity
Word of the week: ethos (ήθος), the Greek word for character
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As a dual American-Canadian citizen, Happy Independence Day to my American readers—and a happy Dominion Day to my Canadian ones!
I’m just back from France where love of country is never far from one’s mind, as it seems as if every other rue (street) and circle is named after Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was World War II General and President of France who lead French through World War II and their resistance against Nazis imperialism, and who embodies the French independent spirit.
As today is July 4th, and Americans across the world are celebrating the day that the United States declared independence from Great Britain, its an appropriate time to reflect on patriotism and national pride.
Are patriotism and national pride good? For eighteenth-century English writer Samuel Johnson, patriotism was “the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Both patriotism and national pride have rather poor reputations these days.
Despite this, it’s common for people to say they are “proud” to be American, French, or wherever they are from. Though my husband Kian, always thoughtful and wise, is quick to remind me that “pride” isn’t really the right word.
After all, if one was born in a given place, did we earn our citizenship? What do we as individuals have to be proud of?
Gratitude over pride
I’m grateful to be American
Gratitude, rather than pride, is I think, is the more appropriate word.
It is altogether proper that Americans take a day to reflect on the reasons we have to be thankful to be citizens of this nation. It’s good to be grateful for the freedoms we enjoy and the ideals we are able to pursue because of that citizenship.
It’s not fashionable to be patriotic these days, but there are a few reasons in particular I think Americans everywhere have good reason to be grateful to be citizens of this great nation.
I’d like to share a few of them with you.
Up until the American founding, virtually all nations in history defined themselves organically, distinguishing themselves from others according to ethnic, territorial, racial, or linguistic lines—by their blut und boden as the Germans put it.
America chose different path: civic nationalism.
Americans decided that—instead of race or language—we’d be united by a shared love of, and commitment to, ideals, such as equality under the law, freedom, and tolerance.
We’ve imperfectly lived up to those ideals, at both the individual and governmental level. But that doesn’t undermine the ideals themselves, or the praiseworthy nature of our civic nationalism.
Civic nationalism is praiseworthy. But it presents a particular challenge for Americans when it comes to forging and—and keeping—a coherent national identity.
As historian Colin Woodard showed in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, there is no monolith when it comes to the narrative of the early American experience. America was settled by people of many ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds—the the Pilgrims who settled Massachusetts Bay are a far cry culturally and religiously from the Scotch Irish that settled Greater Appalachia in the early eighteenth century.
America didn’t have an ethnic identity by which to define itself. So it became a civic nation—a country defined by a collective commitment to living by a set of ideals instead of a common blood, religion, or language.
In a sense, American identity is artificial. It is constructed, and it is chosen.
It must continue to be chosen to be sustained. This means that each generation, and each citizen, must recommit to our shared ideals for themselves for the American experiment to survive.
American citizenship is something we can be born into. But being born into American citizenship is not enough. It is also something we must choose.
That collective choice—that shared commitment to the rule of law, to the shared project of self governance—is what it means to be an American.
This is all a very precarious ground upon which to form a national identity.
That is why the question of what it means to be an American is such an open-ended question—one that has been, and continues to be, hotly debated.
Negative vs. Positive identity
Across time and place, nations—including America—have forged their identities negatively and positively.
A negative identity involves a nation defining itself by contrast to what it is not.
The people of ancient Greece thought themselves to reside at the pinnacle of human achievement, and they made a sharp distinction between themselves and all non-Greeks. They were suspicious of foreigners, calling them “barbarians” because, to the Greek ear, all they seemed to say was “bar-bar-bar.” Their calculation was a simple three part syllogism, as follows:
Our way of life, defined by rationality and self rule, is good and civilized.
These other people do not speak or look or live like we do,
therefore they must be a lesser people.
Difference was treated with skepticism, and was not seen as having any redeeming value.
In another example, the rapid rise and territorial expansion of Islam during the Middle Ages alarmed Christian Europe. Christian art depicted Muslims with animal-like features—a dehumanizing project intended to galvanize and inspire the Crusaders in their righteous cause, as it becomes is easier to conquer and persons, or less than persons, with whom one shares little in common.
Similarly, in American history, national unity was strongest when Americans had an external threat against which we could define ourselves —the British, the Nazis, the Soviet Union, the Taliban.
We knew who we were because we had a stark example of who we were not.
A positive national identity, by contrast, casts and rallies around a vision of what a people stand for.
The Artist and the Hero
Often, creating a such a positive national identity has two components: the artist and the hero.
The hero is the figure that embodies a nation’s ideals of greatness—or the the national ethos (the Greek word for character.)
The artist, in turn, is the immortalizer—a painter, musician, or poet functioning as a myth-maker.
The artist takes the hero’s story, captures the collective imagination, and forges a national identity in the process.
The ancient Greeks, for example, looked to Achilles and Odysseus, heroes whom Homer immortalized in his Iliad and Odyssey as exemplars of what it meant to be Greek.
In Ancient Rome, Aeneas is the hero, Virgil the myth-maker.
Before Italian Unification, known as Il Risorgimento, Italy was fragmented into many city states that were at the time controlled by many different European powers. In the nineteenth century a swell of interest in what it meant to be an Italian swept across the country—in no small part thanks to the magnificent melodies of composer Giuseppe Verdi.
It’s difficult to overstate the role that Verdi’s music played in capturing the national imagination of the once-fractured country. He is the author of the Italian national anthem, and his name even came to be a symbol of national unity. (VERDI is also an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia—in reference to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy).
America, too, has its own tradition of heroes and artists who immortalize them. Consider, for example, Parson Weems. In the years after George Washington’s death, Weems took it upon himself to write our first president’s first biography.
In The Life of Washington, first published in 1800, Weems took Washington the man and transformed him into Washington the hero.
He told stories from Washington’s life that showed how and why Washington embodied all that was great about what it meant to be an American—honesty, integrity, grit, resilience—to the end of inspiring young Americans across the country to aspire to these noble traits, too.
Naturally, Weems took some creative liberties. Indeed, he drew some stories entirely out of thin air. Here are a few examples:
The story about George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree and confessing to it? (“I cannot tell a lie, Pa!”)
It was utterly fabricated, but it was intended to bring to life and celebrate Washington’s exceptional reputation for integrity.
The story of George Washington having two horses shot out from underneath him during the Revolutionary war?
A story invented by Weems to illustrate the divinely providential nature of both Washington personally and the American project generally.
The story of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River?
Also created by Weems, it seems in order to demonstrate Washington’s supernatural strength.
This superhuman, larger-than-life image of Washington still exists in the American consciousness today. For many, Washington remains someone who embodies much that is great in the American tradition.
And we have Parson Weems to thank for that.
Weems—like Homer, Virgil, Wagner and Verdi before him—harnessed the power of art and storytelling for national identity-building and moral instruction. He defined and brought to life what it meant to be American, and cast a vision that was both aspirational and possible.
Even with its tall tales, Weems’ positive identity-building is still far superior to the negative approach to nation building: creating a national identity by “other-izing” those who are different.
This leads us to a question: where are the artist and heroes who can help us craft a positive identity today—who can remind us of the ideals of our civic nationalism (liberty, equality of persons, tolerance of difference) and moving away from the negative nationalism that defines who we are by contrasting us against the other.
Who are the people embodying the ideals we stand for, such as human dignity, equality under the law, honesty, hard work, and integrity?
Who are the artists helping to craft and tell our national story in a way that recognizes and learns from our shortcomings—and defines and inspires us anew with our strengths?
If you know them, tell me! I’d love to hear from you.
I once took an informal poll on social media asking what the Great American Myth, epic poem, or story is. I got hundreds of responses and almost as many different answers.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Walls Whitman’s Leaves of Grass came up several times—but there was far from a universal concensus.
Maybe The West Wing, the TV drama by Aaron Sorkin, or the musical Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda fit the bill?
Instead of a definition of what it mean to be American that unquestioningly celebrates all things America—or demonizes others to feel better about ourselves, as too often happens today—we should instead re-embrace this important tradition of building an identity grounded in confronting our vices while celebrating our virtues.
How should we revive civic nationalism?
What do you think is America’s epic poem?
What do you think about these ideas?
What do you think about what it means to be an American? Or what does it mean to be a citizen in the country to which you were born or nationalized? Is citizenship just piece of paper? Is it about language, cuisine, territory, or blood? Or is it a shared set of values? Something else?
Please feel welcome to send me your Independence Day reflections at firstname.lastname@example.org
Whether you are American or not, Happy Independence Day to you and your loved ones.
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