National Shame

Should national pride still be a thing?  Is it good for us to eternally sing America’s praises, or should we finally give it a rest?

For no particular reason, this question has risen to prominence in recent weeks, in the form of a handful of disparate events across our great (or not great) land.  We’ve covered this territory before, but it would appear the issue has not yet been resolved.

It began at the University of California, Irvine, where the student-led Legislative Council voted to ban the display of the American flag—or any other flag—from the lobby of its building.

In a lengthy resolution explaining its decision, the group noted that because the U.S. flag “has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism” and that “flags construct paradigms of conformity and set homogenized standards,” it is necessary to remove said flag in order to foster “a culturally inclusive space.”

In other words, the American flag in inherently nationalistic and exclusionary, representing America’s sins while pretending to extol its virtues.  As such, to display it is to tacitly condone the entirety of American history—slavery, genocide and all.  As far as the UC-Irvine Legislative Council is concerned, we’d be better off without it.

As it happens, the anti-flag resolution was vetoed by the student government’s Executive Cabinet two days later, following an uproar that led the school’s administration to condemn the original motion as “misguided” and “not endorsed or supported in any way by the campus leadership, the University of California, or the broader student body.”

So the controversy is over at Irvine, but it certainly isn’t over everywhere else.  And it shouldn’t be, because several of the Legislative Council’s assertions about the flag, and patriotism in general, were absolutely correct, and we might as well fess up to them.

Like it or not, national flags are symbols of a particular set of ideals that, by definition, do not necessarily encompass the values and experiences of every last individual.

Like it nor not, the Stars and Stripes do represent the totality of the United States as a nation and an idea, dating back at least to 1776, if not 1607 or even 1492.

And like it or not, the story of America is an ugly one—a veritable horror show of racism, religious intolerance, ethnic hatred, extermination of Natives, subjugation of women and—as the Irvine group noted—the practice of imposing our way of life on foreign populations that did not ask for them.

Are we sure we’re proud of this?  Is it worth even implying that we are?

Sure, most people do not include any of the above when enumerating the reasons America is a great country.  When we talk (or sing) about being “proud to be an American,” we’re just thinking about the good things:  The First Amendment, free enterprise, due process, trial by jury, the Super Bowl, apple pie and so forth.

When it comes to the bad things that make America America, we compartmentalize and rationalize—two of our finest national traits—by insisting that while the United States has committed plenty of sins, they occurred a long time ago and we have learned our lesson and corrected course.  Done and done.

It is certainly appealing to think that the story of the United States is one of constant positive evolution—a breaking away from all our old habits into the actual beacon of liberty we have always claimed to be.  In this way, we regard our country like we do a child who does something wrong but then realizes his mistake and gradually becomes a better person.

The difference, however, is that children generally do not commit genocide against almost the entire Native American population, or systematically prevent all women and black people from voting.

It’s easy enough to be proud of America at its regal, idealistic best.  But it’s awfully hard to shrug away everything else without making yourself look like a damned fool or a mindless jingoist.

Don’t get me wrong:  I think it’s terrific and commendable that the United States has (mostly) abandoned its racist, sectarian past.  On matters of equality and civil rights, America has never been better.  That’s to say nothing of our superior technology, economy and armed forces.  We might not be the Greatest Country in the World in every category, but we’re well above average, and that’s something to be thankful for.

But as we are reminded every time a white police officer shoots an unarmed black civilian—or when our government unlawfully records our phone calls and e-mails, or systematically tortures prisoners—our country and our culture are not half as perfect as our constant displays of patriotism would suggest.  Many of our national successes are little more than the clearing of a very low bar.

While we have a right to be satisfied with clearing any bar—especially when so many other countries are content not to—we should more readily acknowledge our limitations and residual imperfections, and the fact that we’re not nearly as superior to the rest of the world as we think.

Perhaps this is what inspired the other recent micro controversy on this subject:  The debate at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts, about whether the theme of an upcoming school dance should be changed from “American Pride” to “National Pride,” so as to accommodate students whose families hail from other countries.

As with Irvine, Lexington’s irrepressible patriotism prevailed and the “American Pride” dance will go on as scheduled.  However, the very fact that there was a scuffle about it—in the town where the Revolutionary War began, no less—suggests that the notion of a more introspective and humble America is alive and well.

But we are left with the problem of national pride itself—regardless of which nation we’re talking about—and whether it should still exist.

I think the concept is silly and absurd, and that George Carlin was onto something in saying, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth.”

In other words, even if America really were perfect, to be “proud” of it would imply that you, personally, had something to do with creating that perfection.  Since neither of those things is the case, all you’re really saying is that hundreds of years of trial-and-error living and governing by hundreds of millions of people has made America a really nice place to live, and you’re extremely happy that you happen to live here, too.

So why not just say that?  Why not be grateful for having the unbelievable luck of being born into a free, multicultural, pluralistic society and leave it at that?  Why get all uppity and arrogant about it, as if it’s necessary to assert something over and over again in order for it to be true?

To get a sense of how unappealing this sort of mindset can appear to outsiders, look no farther than Texas, where the Supreme Court is about to decide whether the Confederate flag can be stamped onto state license plates.  The case is being brought by the group Sons of Confederate Veterans, which claims that its free speech rights were violated when Texas refused to issue specialty license plates bearing the controversial Southern emblem.

As in past squabbles over whether the symbol should appear in public, the Sons of Confederate Veterans argues the flag represents “sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage,” while opponents say it represents slavery and racism.

And of course, both sides are correct.  As the official logo of the Confederacy, it embodies a group of states that held millions of black people in bondage for centuries, right up until a terrible war put an end to it once and for all.

How is this any different from the American flag and what it represents?

We Northerners like to claim moral superiority on the grounds that we have always opposed slavery while so many Southerners seemingly still don’t.  On the other hand, groups like Sons of Confederate Veterans are adamant (however dubiously) that their continued “pride” has nothing to do with slavery, and meanwhile, although few slaves existed outside the South through 1865, Northern states greatly profited from their trade and have hardly been immune to racial tension ever since.

We shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook so easily.  It’s unseemly and it’s unwarranted.  There’s a reason that pride is one of the seven deadly sins, while shame is not.

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