America/Patriotism/Moral Vacuums/Thank You!
Back soon to my project, but first a reflection, open to your critique.
I’ve always struggled with the idea of being a patriot, of loving one’s country. I’m prone to an internal scoff upon hearing platitudes such as ‘Family, God, and Country first,’ and I am seemingly immune to the feeling of duty that millions of soldiers have felt towards America. There’s always a moment of tension when the national anthem comes on: raise my hand to my heart and not sing? Refuse to participate? Omit certain words? Keep gossiping with my friends? My relationship with America is one of averted eye contact: I’ll celebrate the national day of our country by drinking heavily and wearing read white and blue, but it’s always layered and laced with sarcasm, brimming with more irony than authenticity. We drink Bud Light because this is AMERICA and imported beer is cheap, we eat hamburgers because in AMERICA our corrupt and unethical meat industry results in plenty, we sit idle and idling in the back of a truck because we are not subject to nature’s limitations, and we yell ‘FREEDOM’ into the starry night, lighting illegal fireworks because this is AMERICA and we have RIGHTS. This is not parody, I’ve done these things and I’ve celebrated America, but always with the shroud of awareness that America also represents slavery, America also represents exploitation of indigenous peoples, America also represents (is?) big business and corporate profits at the expense of the environment, America is run by the rich, you’ve heard these things before. Better to celebrate it ironically that to forget, but still. My liberal upbringing finds me caught in the (concealed carry) crosshairs of this tension: is it inconceivable that one could be a liberal, critical, patriot? Why can’t I say ‘I love my country’ out loud and mean it?
As I settle into a new country, I’ve been struggling with how to talk about America. I did not come to New Zealand to be embarrassed about my country or to be an apologetic messenger on behalf of liberals everywhere, and I have not been sent here to simple-mindedly and brutishly bash our new president with everyone that I meet. After all, I am currently living in New Zealand on a Fellowship funded by the UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT, who funds such projects because of a desire to, in Senator Fulbright’s words, “bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” In a country that hardly a major player in trade deals or war negotiations, I’ve still been tasked with improving relations, shedding good light on America, being an compassionate example of an American that informs and tweaks a concept of our country that might be headed in the wrong direction. I know America is built on good values, but I am still queasy with the idea of patriotism, it feels like a dirty word. It seems imperative that I find something in America to be proud of.
Following the election, I was awash with an indecision dangerously close to apathy. I saw words like freedom being twisted and morphed such that I could no longer recognize them, and I saw my liberal friends shouting and angry on the streets. Justifiably so, but their decisive ‘Fuck Trump’ and ‘Not My President’ scared me a little, felt like the Jekyll version of values that I previously endorsed. I felt principle-less: polls and statistics could’t tell me the truth, the news was never objective, and my moral universe had been punctured by the shrill voice of almost half the country, real people who hold a very different idea of what is ‘right’ and ‘good.’ I felt uncomfortable brashly dismissing this population as a whole, but nervous at what might fill my new moral vacuum. Was it undermining democracy to refuse to accept Trump as president, to refuse a peaceful transition and the voices of millions of people that voted for him? Or was it the opposite, given that supporting Trump in many ways seems antithetical to democracy itself? Once again, crosshairs. My moral compass had been upturned, and in the void I wondered whether there was anything that it was to ‘be right’ or ‘do good’ or whether my past definitions had simply been a function of my upbringing and my solidly blue Facebook feed. I saw Hillary in her concession speech saying “please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it,” and I thought: “Hillary! How the hell do you know what is right?” Where exactly are you finding these objective moral facts about rightness and wrongness? This is a scary ideological place to be, and I left the U.S. feeling as if there was a lot of work to do, both in myself and in our country.
But, after watching my friends, neighbors, teachers, relatives, and classmates take on the work of democracy over these past few weeks, I feel as if I have sown the seeds for the pride that I need to do what I’ve been tasked in NZ. The displays of engagement on inauguration day first: I am PROUD to see that my country has embraced this work; your photos and videos and signs are tangible touchable demonstrations of democracy, something that I can talk about with the people I meet here. These marches came from a place of love laced with anger, rather than one of brash and unpredictable hatred, they seemed to me to come from a place of compassion, the very thing I have been told is my goal here.
Second, though, I am proud to be an American because you have returned me to my principles, pulled me out of the quicksand of thinking that what is good or right might just be whatever we say it is, and the ‘we’ right now is the majority. I am proud to be an American because I am slowly moving back to believing that there is indeed an arc to the moral universe and that there is in fact something that it is to be just, that there might be a moral authority somewhere in the muck. I am thankful and proud of America for being decisive and unrelenting in interpreting our principles in a way that is just, and I will try my very hardest to reflect and respect your dedication in my new home.