Are you proud to be an American?

The question poses problems from the start.
First, I was always told that pride is a sin—it’s so tightly linked with arrogance and self-righteousness—so pride may not be the expression we’re looking for here. Perhaps satisfied is a better choice, or fulfilled or contented or happy.
Second, “American” is such a vast and complex and contradictory landscape. For most Americans being American is simply an accident of birth, and we could have as easily been thrust into the world as Algerian, Bulgarian, Cambodian…Zimbabwean—the whole alphabet soup. Why take pride in a chance happening, even if it turns out to be a joyful one personally? And for most immigrants, coming to America and becoming an American is freighted with complicated motives and meanings, deep conflict and an abiding sense of dislocation: a few are political refugees, many more are refugees from the ravages of poverty or climate change imposed by wealthier nations (think NAFTA), and others are fleeing wars—note the waves of Vietnamese and Indochinese immigrants following the US invasion and occupation there, and more recently the huge numbers of people coming from Iraq following that invasion. Pride doesn’t begin to capture the lived realities of actual people.
Third, pride in America leans fatefully toward nationalism, and nationalism leads inevitably to moral blindness: every atrocity universally condemned—torture, assassination, bombing civilians—changes its meaning for nationalists depending on who does the deed.
Imagine meeting a Japanese citizen and asking her if she’s proud to be Japanese. “Well,” she answers, “I am a happy person, and I love my family and care for my neighbors and community; I like hiking in the countryside; the language is lovely, the food remarkable, and many aspects of the culture are alive deep within my bones. But I’m not proud to have an emperor, nor am I proud remembering the ‘rape of Nanking,’ the Korean ‘comfort women,’ the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or more recently, the avoidable devastation at Fukashima.” That’s a pretty thoughtful and sensible answer.
A German might respond similarly, adding: “I like the economic privileges I enjoy here, the sophisticated infrastructure, and the beer—but World War II and the Holocaust, no. I’m young and so I didn’t live through those years, but it’s part of the German reality and so I still feel a painful responsibility that can and should never be forgotten.”
A Belgian could love the lakes and loath King Leopold; an Englishman might like the food—I said “might”—and despise the bloody Royals. So it goes.
And so it is for this American: I’m happy to be alive today searching for answers to the monstrous challenges we face—permanent war and the largest military behemoth ever created with its attendant war culture eating away at the foundations of democracy and justice, mass incarceration and a culture of cruelty and debasement (the “New Jim Crow” according to legal scholar Michelle Alexander because of the vast over-representation of men of color) with the US caging 2.5 million people, 25% of the world’s prisoners crowded into American hell-holes, and avoidable environmental catastrophe looming above us all—happy to be swimming through the wreckage toward a distant and more hopeful shore.
I’m delighted to be in a revolutionary tradition that broke with empire and a kingdom—because a king to me is always a son-of-a-bitch—and engaged in a second powerful revolution that overthrew the slavocracy. I’m pleased to draw a straight line from where we are now back to the great Americans who opposed the Castillian invasion and the Columbian genocide—Crazy Horse, Osceola, Cochise—to those who broke with Great Britain—Thomas Paine, Governour Morris, Patrick Henry—and to those who rebelled against slavery and led to the Second American Revolution—Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Harriet Tubman with that little pistol concealed in her pocket.
I’m inspired to be in the tradition of America’s radicals: Jane Addams and Emma Goldman, John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs and WEB Du Bois, Ella Baker and Septima Clark, Shulamith Firestone and Betty Freidan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, Stokely Carmichael, Leonard Peltier, and on up to today and the efforts of James Thindwa and Karen Lewis, Grace Lee Boggs and Ai-jen Poo, Bill McKibben and Jeff Jones, Kathy Boudin and Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis and Beth Richie, Kathy Kelly and Bernardine Dohrn and Reyna Wences. Of course as Ella Baker said of Reverend King, “Martin didn’t make the Movement, the Movement made Martin,” and it’s true: for every remembered leader there were thousands, tens of thousands and millions putting their shoulders on history’s wheel and sharing a faith that injustice can be opposed and justice aspired to, a belief in human solidarity and connectedness as a living force, a spirit of outrage tempered with vast feelings of love and generosity, a commitment to open-ended dialogue where the questions are always open to debate, and a full and passionate embrace of the life we’re given combined with an eagerness to move forward striving to build a world-wide beloved community.

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