A friend of mine grew up in a household of committed socialists and committed Catholics in the East Village of New York back in the nineteen-fifties. It was commonplace for her to hear as a child strong critiques of capitalism in the United States. Added to this was the fact that her family saw themselves as Irish. Despite the fact that she had been born in New York City, my friend felt that somehow she was not quite American. As an adult, she was finally able one day to travel to her family’s homeland. She anticipated feeling some connection to the Irish people, of coming home, so to speak. The experience drove home for her how utterly American she truly was. She said it was ironic that she had to go to Ireland to find out that she was American. Ironic, perhaps, but not uncommon.
I probably would not have been typical any place. Certainly, I don’t feel much connection to many things that received wisdom holds to be typically American. I am not religious. I dislike regional planning based on cars. I listen to almost no country music. I am ambivalent about capitalism. I’m a bit intellectual. I am not overly fond of hamburgers and fried chicken. There is one thing, however, that makes me feel entirely American, and that is leaving the country.
They say that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. I have no idea who said that, but it’s a saying that I’ve been hearing since I was a child. Received wisdom is a compendium of many memes, and the inherent vileness of a love of country is one that came down to me. I was born not long after U.S. combat troops were first deployed to Vietnam. The close association between patriotism, jingoism and military actions meant that patriotism was seen as a start down the slippery slope to killing infants in a foreign land. A love of country could lead to a dangerous lack of love for people from other countries.
At the age of twenty-five, I took my first trip to Europe. When I met the friend with whom I was traveling at the airport, she looked at the cowboy boots on my feet and said to me, “Why did you wear those? Everyone’s going to think you’re an American.”
“And do you know what?” I said. “They’ll be right.”
I was not so lacking in perception to not have already known that among sophisticated Americans it was considered déclassé to present oneself in such a way as to be recognized as one, but the boots were comfortable and they were what I wanted to wear. Perhaps there was a small bit of defiance in my choice as well, but only a little.
We were staying in Trieste and one evening we went out dancing. While we were on the dance floor a group of young men we had seen at lunch arrived. We had taken note of them earlier for the not very elevated reason that my friend thought that a couple of them were handsome. The waitress at the restaurant informed us that they were German.
They came out onto the dance floor and one of them shoved my friend. We had gone out many times to questionable locales from Washington D.C. to Boston and had long since developed unstated signals. She got my attention and made a face and a gesture that let me know that it was time to leave. To get to our hotel near the water, we had to walk down a narrow, steep street that was for foot traffic only. We heard what sounded like people calling after us from behind. We stopped. It was the German tourists who proceeded to surround us and yell at us. The shouted at us mostly in German, so I had no idea what they were saying. One word, however, was repeated enough that it stood out. “Turk.” Then one of them said, in English, “Hey, Israeli, you think you’re so tough why don’t you fight.”
A few seconds later, some Italian men appeared. The walked firmly and confidently past the Germans, took us by the arm and led us away. They appeared to speak neither German nor English, so I can only assume that they were responding to body language and the fact that five men were surrounding two women, the larger of whom weighed less than 50 kilos.
My friend and I puzzled over the mysterious word “Turk.” We speculated that, perhaps, since Turkeys were birds native to North America that Turkey was a German slur for Americans. A few years later, I found myself being mistaken for Turkish when it suddenly dawned on me, with my dark hair and eyes the German men had taken me for a Turk. In retrospect, our speculation was ludicrous, but we were very surprised and confused by the entire incident.
I do not say this in any way to abuse Germans. In all my dealings with Germans I must say that these men were exceptions. What surprised me most about this episode was that I had grown up being told that racism was a uniquely American failing.
Slowly, it began to dawn on me, that many of the failings I’d been taught to perceive as American failings, prejudice, racism, xenophobia, greed, a lust for power, were human failings.
In or about 1999, I went to go hear Noam Chomsky lecture. He is a popular man and the university lecture hall was packed with many admirers. However, there were also people ready to put to him what they believed were pointed questions. One person asked why, when there were so many worse governments around the world, Chomsky criticized the United States so harshly. At least according to my recollection, Chomsky responded that as an American it was where he had the most responsibility and could be the most effective.
A large part of this post, or at least the topic, was prompted by Josh Liefer’s post “Refusing to Stand: On Nationalism and Identity.” At the end of his post he asks:
Or to phrase the question with shameful naivete: I need to live in some country, some place, somewhere in the world. And all countries, or at least almost all countries, are parts of many terrible mechanisms of oppression. How do I justify being anywhere?
I felt much the same way at his age. I would like to modestly suggest that the question is not truly “How do I justify being anywhere?” but “How do I justify being politically active and engaged anywhere.”
It is something of a truism these days, and one that I think is correct, that attempts to aid members of other groups, whether those other groups are other ethnic groups, other racial groups, the disabled, the economically disadvantaged and so on, will be misguided unless those seeking to help have a sincere regard and respect for the people the are trying to help and can see those other groups as autonomous individuals with needs and desires as legitimate as one’s own. A similar ethic should be applied when seeking political reform in a particular country. You can’t help people you despise.
Perhaps it is due to the United States’ association with capitalism, but it seems to me that a dislike for the United States among its own citizens is more common on the left than on the right. When I was younger, I couldn’t help noticing among my own acquaintances that this was often, although not always, accompanied by a sense of superiority. I believe that I can recognize the subtext because I am not immune to the feeling. For those of us who are not professional politicians, politics is about trying to make people’s lives better, our own and those of our neighbors. We can better do this from a sense of love and respect than from a position of condescension and paternalism.
I am an unlikely patriot, but I decided to make patriotism a choice. It’s not always easy to love this country. I strongly suspect that it is not easy to love any country. Many are the days that I want to throw my hands up in disgust. However, the day I do that I believe I will no longer be able to be as engaged in politics. Certainly, I couldn’t expect that anyone would listen to me. After all, would you take advice from someone who hates you?