America’s Performative Patriots – Arc Digital
As Independence Day approached, I made plans to celebrate the 4th with my family, as we do every year. I walked down the Walmart aisle, overwhelmed by the large selection of ribbons, hats, face paint, lanterns — anything necessary for USA-loving citizens to celebrate the birth of our nation. As I stood there staring at flag-adorned napkins next to red, white, and blue cups, and walked past the briquettes and the patriotic Budweiser display, I thought about everything our country is going through and wondered what patriotism means in today’s America. Have we become a nation of performative patriots, traipsing around in our flag apparel with little regard for what this country could be?
What this country could be. Allow me to explain.
A few weeks ago, I went to visit my Grandpa in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, and as we drove past the perfectly manicured graves — which, if I remember correctly, number close to 200,000 — on over 300 acres of hallowed ground, you can’t help but find yourself in awe. I read the names and dates of the graves surrounding our car as we slowly drove to my grandparent’s resting place, and I thought back to a time when I stood, again in awe, on another piece of hallowed ground: Gettysburg.
I’m the daughter of a veteran, the step-daughter of a veteran, the granddaughter of a veteran, the sister of a veteran, and the same theme continues throughout my family tree. I was raised on Lee Greenwood and history books, and — from as young as I can remember — when I heard the National Anthem my hand instinctively went over my heart, as it still does today.
When I was 10, the private school I attended made us rewrite the Constitution over and over and over until we could darn near quote it, and I devoured history books like they were candy. I took a particular interest in the Civil War, so when the time came for me to decide where I wanted to spend a special day out, the answer was Gettysburg. As I stood there overwhelmed on the battlefield I thought about the “Gettysburg Address,” something we’d just read — and of course rewritten countless times — that year in school.
…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
That day at Gettysburg I finally absorbed two extremely important lessons. The second lesson I’ll get to later, but the first lesson was that America has a brutal and painful past, and no matter how much I love my country, I can never let myself forget that. In 1939, we turned away victims of Nazism and sent them back to their deaths. During World War II, we put Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Our country’s history includes the horrific treatment of native Americans, slavery, lynchings, lack of rights for women, etc., and all of those issues, plus those unmentioned, prove that America has quite a few stains in our history. We do it a disservice to pretend as though we don’t.
Many have a hard time acknowledging our past atrocities while embracing a dedication to country, and I believe that’s because we’ve distorted what patriotism really means. They’ve been convinced that good ol’ American pride can’t coexist with sordid history, so they develop a selective memory, which leads to a patriotism rooted in fantasy. As a result, people across our nation speak of patriotism like it’s currency, cheapening it to a collection of empty platitudes. You receive more patriot points if you have a kneeling soldier silhouette on your profile picture, or if you drape the colors of the flag across your chest, or if you claim to “stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.”
As Jenna Pruett wrote in a piece for Arc:
Patriotism is not so dull a sentiment, so stifling a feeling, that it cannot admit of variation. A high price was paid, by the Founders and by subsequent generations, for this grand American experiment. But this experiment depends on many of us remaining watchful, in a state of permanent vigilance, seizing the opportunities we get to assist with the tweaks and fixes and enhancements that increasingly make this experiment a success for all the different kinds of people who call this place home. …
Sometimes patriotism is an act of reverence, but sometimes it’s looking on your country with a critical eye and saying, “We can and must be better.” A genuinely unpatriotic posture would be to condemn the country as hopelessly incapable of change; yet what could be more patriotic than harnessing the energies of American dissent toward the problems we have yet to conquer? …
Whether you belt out each word of the anthem with your hand placed firmly over your heart; whether you stand silently and respectfully with your hands folded behind your back; or even if you quietly take a knee — we can all love our country in our own way. One may be prioritizing what we already are; another might be focused on what we could yet be. Patriotism isn’t the exclusive province of the former.
So there I was, wondering how we boiled all this history down to flag napkins and cheap red, white, and blue sunglasses. The paraphernalia is normal and fun and just part of the Independence Day celebrations, but can it really be that those who are completely comfortable celebrating who we are as a country at this moment are the same ones who get to embody what a true representation of patriotic ideals looks like?
Such people now support — often cheer — those who treat innocent children as animals, and worse yet, they do so after wrapping themselves in the flag and parading around as though they represent what is good and decent about America. They mutter an empty “God Bless America” as though a nation that punishes a child whose parents legally sought asylum is worthy of being blessed. Patriotism has become a t-shirt, a hat, a bumper sticker, a Toby Keith song — a pretty little flag we wave around.
What has driven Americans to see atrocities and not only accept them, but to construe defending them as patriotic? Maybe it has to do with the cheap patriotism that tells people their love of country can be proven by a witty bumper sticker, or by standing up and saying magic words to a piece of cloth. Or maybe it was the fear we sow that made them feel as though retreating from decency was the only option. Maybe it’s the blinding selfishness that found fertile soil in prosperity.
Maybe they feel as though they’re too invested in partisan politics to let the suffering of innocent children sink in as it should, to acknowledge the gravity of the situation.
Maybe they’ve allowed themselves to be swallowed whole by the dehumanization of those different than them, and they’ve placed a value on the heads of immigrants as cavalierly as one places a price tag on an item at the store.
Maybe they’ve chosen not to look at the pictures or read the articles, and maybe they’ve avoided the innocent faces and the descriptions of their cries.
Maybe they’ve never had to have “the talk” with their kids about how the color of their skin will automatically put them in greater danger with law enforcement.
Maybe they can’t bring themselves to imagine their own child as a refugee, lying lifeless, facedown in the water. They’ve pushed away the knowledge that in their child’s final breaths they’d cling to them for safety as tightly as they’d cling to the hope that they could promise them a better future if they could just find their way back to shore.
Maybe they’ve forgotten that the only thing that separates them from those desperate to find refuge is the privilege of their birthplace.
They can’t imagine watching their child be lowered into the ground because they reached for their wallet and were executed on the side of the road by the enforcement arm of the government. But, hey, they have a flag decal on the back window of their SUV, so I guess it’s not their problem if the rights men and women died to protect are being trampled on.
They’ve never wondered what being forced to see their children put in jeopardy every day might feel like. To choose between a future of violence and rape and suffering in their own land or making the journey to a place where the tiny lives who depend on them will at least have a chance.
Maybe it’s because they’ll never have to spend years in a refugee camp, praying for a future for their kids, wondering if they made the right choice even though home was no longer an option. Maybe they’ve boiled that choice down to make it more palatable, and they imagine asylum-seekers all spitefully leaving cushioned lives to invade another land as a child imagines monsters in the closet.
Maybe they’ve considered all of that, but they can’t stop themselves from blaming the innocent kids on the other side of their pet political causes, because that would make those kids victims, and as long as the kids are complicit in the crimes of their parents they can sleep well in their bed every night while the cold air chills migrant babies who lay in dirty clothes under an aluminum blanket, or while the dirt is shoveled over the casket of another innocent black child, or while another cries in the night craving safety, too little to understand why they’re caught in the crossfire. If those kids are innocent then we are not, and this is what they voted for, right?
The simplest answer is that there have always been people in our country who will belittle and celebrate and excuse the suffering of others, and there always will be, this time they just happen to have a proud ally in the White House.
Now for the second lesson: What America could be.
If at this point you’re thinking I’m just here to wave a white flag, to declare that evil has triumphed and good has been defeated, that’s not the case. The bitter pill we must swallow to truly embrace a healthy patriotism is what I learned while standing on the battlefield of Gettysburg, desperate to balance the shame of knowing that my country subjected human beings to such crushing brutality with the pride I felt remembering that so many gave their lives to stop that brutality. Men and women died because they believed in what their country could be, not simply out of pride in what it was at the time. If they truly believed that America was perfect, honorable, and worthy of unrelenting praise, they wouldn’t have laid down their lives to change it.
The lesson: You have to love something and believe in it to deem it worthy of such dedication. Love and dedication to country does not blindly worship reckless leaders, it doesn’t give up trying to be better, it doesn’t stop moving forward. It doesn’t just buy cheap trinkets in the patriotic aisle at Walmart and accept who we are and write off the atrocities we commit. It sees the better tomorrow and fights for it.
So, I say again: This can’t be who we are as a country. I refuse to accept it.
The people who push hatred under the guise of patriotism can’t be who we are.
The containing to deny human beings’ rights can’t be who we are.
Separating children from their parents at the border and putting them in detention centers can’t be who we are.
Blind worship for a president who praises depraved dictators can’t be who we are.
Families living in fear of the enforcement arm of the government can’t be who we are.
Every new day brings more blood on our hands, and more victims who have a story to tell. “Make America Great Again” was a rally cry devoid of American ideals, screaming from the bowels of an America that patriots and heroes have worked to defeat. It planted a dangerous seed in the hearts of Americans, whispering the lie that we can never be better than who we were, that we had no place to go but back, that progression was evil and scary.
I can’t force them to break out of their bubble and allow themselves to care, or to place themselves in the shoes of desperate parents, or to see the inhumanity for what it is. I can’t make them see that their attempts to shatter so much of what makes this country worth fighting for isn’t patriotism. I can’t make them see that their brand of patriotism is cheap and ordinary while they’re willingly dancing in the muck and rejoicing.
As the fireworks went off and the kids danced around in their red, white, and blue apparel, innocent children within our borders were hungry, cold, dirty, and separated from their parents for no other reason than punishment for crimes they didn’t commit. Refugees remained separated from their homes, desperate for any kind of future for their children. Minorities across America were still being denied the same rights the rest of us take for granted.
Like I said, I can’t convince them of anything, but I can encourage anyone reading this to be a voice for the innocent and remember that those who were determined to move this country forward had to do so against the tide of people who just wanted to sit in the decay and call it a day. That’s our history, the good and the bad.
I have days where I feel defeated — as so many of us do — but embracing that history also means I have to remember the men and women who gave their lives to fight for the freedom of our fellow citizens because they believed we could be better. I have to remember all of the heroes who marched from Selma to Montgomery because they believed we could be better. I have to remember all the women who came before me who sacrificed so much for my rights because they believed we could be better.
I love my country, and I always will, but I choose to fight for an America that stands for the innocent, an America that isn’t driven by fear, an America that embraces the title of “refuge,” an America that overpowers hate, and an America that will once again lift our lamp beside the golden door. That’s not who we are right now, but I believe we can be better.
It’s time to leave those who wish to “Make America Great Again” behind, where they obviously want to be, and start moving America forward again.