A Letter to a Friend- On the Purpose of My Patriotism
When I think of why I am proud to be an American, after having underwent my political evolution, I realize it would be foolish to say because I am proud of what America has done. States don’t work that way, I don’t think, and in any case America is enough of a state that its survival has bloodied its hands with the blood of millions. Democracy is a fun illusion. Freedom is power reserved to oneself. I don’t think any of the normal reasons for being proud to be an American can apply, when I have the understanding of politics I choose to hold.
My reason, I think, is partly tribal- It is MY country, and I am of it, just as I am part of my family and I love it, and I am part of my university, and I love it- and partly symbolic- I love the mythology, the symbols, the aura, and the rituals, and they are a part of my identity and therefore something to be celebrated. Consequently all parts of American heritage are important to me, and when I say I am proud of my country’s past, I don’t mean I think it was perfect and ought to be repeated- I mean I am proud of it similar to the way I would say I am proud of the life I have lived. Of course I don’t think it was the best thing that could of happened, or the definition of perfection. But it was MINE, and all I have- and therefore I ought to own it.
As regards American Exceptionalism- what a tricky, sticky topic! Of course I think, with Adams, that there is nothing particularly unique about the American experience, some metaphysical truth, some divine intervention, that somehow makes Americans better than any other nation or people on the planet. To cultivate such an idea is necessary for national pride, but I cannot believe it to be more than an extremely fortunate accident of fate, wrought in the geography and ecology of the continent, etched in the history of the world at the continent’s settlement and then at the nation’s birth, penned in the magnanimous lives of its wisest men. A miracle, by some counts- history, by others.
But when I consider this accident, I must consider also the nature of the way things work. I am inclined to believe there is a God in Heaven above, who governs the universe by his Providence, whose purpose is benevolent but essentially unreachable by us mere mortals who quake in awe of Him. ‘All things happen for a reason;’ and as all affairs can be placed, thereby, in a divine context, it would follow that the life of the nation, of all nations, is also thereby placed. So it would be foolishness to say that there is no divine providence, and no divine plan for America!
At the same time, I find it foolhardy to believe that God is as much an interventionist as he has been characterized. If he is an interventionist, I would assume him to be so at the level of individuals, not nations. If all the fate of America has been the intervened work of God, then it would seem that God has a sickly mind indeed. And I will not believe that a just God would favor one nation over another as a matter of Providence.
Rather, I think it would be wiser to laud the accidents of American history, rather than suppose it all part of a plan which never could have gone wrong due to the grace of God. And it seems that in the ironic accidents of American history, she achieved her greatest ideal victories- the things that have caused those who love her to rejoice. The vision of America taught to our children and proclaimed in our anthems is a beautiful one indeed, and it was forged in those ironic accidents which now define our heritage. 1776 (what a beautiful number) marked the secession; and it was probably bound to happen, but it happened in so epic a method. The geographical, or rather political, imbalance was absurd (though skewed in modern measurements) and made for stories painting America as the underdog. The Constitutional Convention created an imperfect document not by wise design, but by raucous political compromise. The following growth of America fostered the image painted by de Tocqueville. And what a wonderful picture indeed! The Westward Movement, the day of the pioneer, expressed the entrepreneurial spirit more clearly than any treatise could or has. The Civil War saw a crusade, the first this nation undertook, against an undeniable evil, yet nearly rent the nation asunder. It made for a perfect Aeneid. Millions from every nation poured into her ports, and proved the attractiveness of the American way of life, if not in its reality then in its promise. The Twentieth Century was spent fighting tyranny, advancing equality, and developing technology. By the end of it America stood atop the world order, and what appeared a glorious past lay behind it, a promising future before it. I will not deny- the historical idea, in itself, its essence, is a beautiful one. And it is generally so wrongly remembered as to nearly constitute a lie- but the fact that it is so widely believed and cherished makes it a truth of our identity.
I have referenced Adams, who stipulated that nothing made Americans unique from any other people but their unique situation and descent; and Franklin was wise, in predicting that the United States would one day fall, as every nation does; but all things considered, it seems that the United States will leave, upon the world’s heritage, a love of liberty, as surely as the Roman Republic left upon it a love of justice. And liberty being one of the various political goods which may be striven for in the concrete, America is therefore not quite only another nation. It possesseth not the divine guidance it is at times attributed. Yet that special heritage- the culture of liberty- defines, I believe, America’s ‘purpose’ if such a thing exists. But that will be for posterity to judge.