For several years The Patriot held a firm spot in my top 5 list of all-time favorite movies. This was about 75% due to the fact that I was madly in love with Heath Ledger since I discovered him in a Knight’s Tale when I was 12 (I’m talking full-on fangirling complete with posters and memorizing useless trivia about him like his birthday and parents’ names and all. The day he passed away four different people called me independently of each other to break the news gently so I would hear it from someone I knew instead of the media), and about 25% because I liked the idea of an America honorably fought for by noble and beautiful men to “build a whole new world” for everyone despite the attempts of the evil British Empire to keep us a bunch of divided, racist colonies. This is what I thought the Revolutionary War was. I ended the movie with the same enthusiasm as Mel Gibson and the surviving militia men, thankful for my shiny, happy country where all has been set right. I’ve since become a little disillusioned–some may say cynical– as I’ve realized that after several more wars and two hundred some odd years we’re not all that much closer to that “whole new world” than we were when the credits rolled.
On a trip to England the summer after my high school graduation, the ticket taker at Madame Tussaud’s heard my accent and asked pointedly, “An American, huh? So you think you know your own history?” I was flustered because, well, I didn’t really, and the more I’ve learned since then, the more my national pride has deflated over the years. It’s just hard to sing “God Bless America” when I get a glimpse of how much we’ve failed to bless one another and the rest of the world over the years. I wear my red, white, and blue uncomfortably now, finding the colors a little too obnoxiously bright and cheerful and the triumphalist praise of “the greatest nation on Earth” a little too loud. All the Americana feels like a bit of the slap in the face to the realities of what war means for everyone who fights it, who really benefits from the way our society runs, and the experiences of all those Americans who are left out or beat up by the system we’ve got set up here. I think we’ve lost focus. I mindlessly bopped along to Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” on the radio for years before a friend pointed out how much this anthem exemplifies what makes me squeamish about calling myself a patriot anymore. Just listen to this last verse: “I thank God for my life, thank God for the stars and stripes; may freedom forever fly, let it ring. Salute the ones who died, the ones who give their lives, so we don’t have to sacrifice all the things we love like our chicken fried, a cold beer on a Friday night, a pair of jeans that fit just right, and the radio on.” Really? Our troops died so we could have fried chicken and comfortable denim?! And God is okay with this? And we are okay with this? And honestly, were the KFC and Levi’s ever really in danger? Is the cost of war for the 2% of our population who serve in the military really worth it for our service members and their families if the payoff is just maintaining the comfort level and leisure of the 98% who don’t?
So when the fourth of July rolls around I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. I do love my country, and I am unspeakably grateful for the men and women who serve in our military. None of us who have not been part of that institution can ever understand what it means to wear a uniform, and I pray for the protection and blessing of every single person who makes the choice to enlist. Thank you for your service. I am thankful for the freedoms I experience that my brothers and especially my sisters in other countries often do not share: that I have access to education and basic health care, that I can worship who and when and how I feel led, that I can participate in the political process through voting and volunteering, and especially that I can speak my mind and share my concerns and criticism of my government without fear. These are gifts that I don’t take lightly. At the same time, I see that not everyone in America really has equal access to these things even though that is our ideal. I don’t want to go shouting about the glories of ‘Murica from the rooftops when I know how poorly we end up treating our veterans (many of whom suffer from lack of follow-up support when they return to civilian life, leading to problems getting the education, employment, health care, housing, and other basic needs they deserve) and how many holes we still have in that big American flag that’s suppose to wrap us all up and hold us all together as one. What’s a girl to do?
As always, this girl turned to C.S. Lewis. In The Four Loves he spells out a sort of recipe for a “healthy patriotism” that honors God and all our neighbors (both in our own country and outside it), and while I don’t agree with him on every aspect of it, pieces of this section help me come to an uneasy patriotism of my own. The two biggest pieces are this: a love of home as home for its own sake and a realistic awareness of our own history (and present) in both its glories and its shortcomings.
His first “ingredient” has a little bit in common with the “Fried Chicken” song I mentioned earlier:
First, there is the love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all the places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells…. With this love for the place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it [i.e. the British equivalent to the Southern culture Zac Brown is singing about]; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language….
Here’s where he takes an important turn though:
Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude toward foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise [sic] that other [people], no less rightly, love theirs?… The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.
And perhaps even more importantly, Lewis reminds us to make room for the memory of our entire history, not just the parts we like.
The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings. The heroic stories, if taken to be typical, give a false impression of it and are often themselves open to serious historical criticism. Hence a patriotism based on our glorious past is fair game for the debunker. As knowledge increases it may snap and be converted to disillusioned cynicism [Sound familiar?], or it may be maintained by a voluntary shutting of the eyes…. I think it possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up. The image becomes dangerous to the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic historical study. The stories are best when they are handed on and accepted as stories [rather than the reality].
He concludes part of this chapter by saying, “patriotism has, then, many faces,” and it turns out, one of them is mine. Uneasy and qualified as it may be, there it is, a smidge of national pride persistently beating in my little American heart in spite of myself.
For those of you who find today an easy celebration, enjoy it, have fun at your cookout, and hug a service member if you get the chance, but take a moment to think on what we can do to make our American dream more of a reality for every American by this time next year.
For those of us who struggle with today and what it represents, let’s work on finding a way to turn our concerns and criticism into something positive– actions and advocacy to make an America we can be proud of.
The beauty of it is, there’s room for all of us in this crazy country of ours. Now that’s something to celebrate.
Happy fourth of July friends!