Patriotism, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”
George Jean Nathan -- who, unlike Irishman Shaw, was an American -- was even more cynical, calling it “an arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles.”
That zinger surely applies to more than a few flag-draped blowhards among us. But as an assessment of the genuine article, I don’t buy a word of it.
On the contrary, true American patriotism doesn’t just involve principle; it is principle. “Real estate,” to use Nathan’s term, is secondary.
That’s not to say this isn’t the most diversely beautiful place on earth; it is. Our purple mountains are indeed majestic, our waves of grain amber, our plains fruited. No Old World city is more gorgeous than San Francisco or more exciting than New York. Washington might be our national political punch line, but the emotional power of standing on the National Mall -- in placid times or turbulent, more of a true “people’s park” than anything on the other side of the fallen Iron Curtain -- surely has no equivalent.
But American patriotism is, in its essence, a shared commitment to a set of ideals. About liberty and human rights and civic responsibility, about individual and collective dignity, about finding the world’s moral high ground and occupying it -- by example if possible, by force only if necessary.
We have failed those ideals, utterly and spectacularly, more than a few times in our relatively short history. When we have lived up to them -- and Americans have done that more than a few times, too -- we have been the beacon of the world.
Columnist Kathleen Parker recently wrote an extraordinary piece (nothing unusual there; most of her writing is extraordinary) about American “exceptionalism” as a political wedge. It has become, she wrote, “a litmus test for patriotism the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution.”
(You may have noticed, incidentally, that people who create their own “litmus tests,” for patriotism or anything else, always pass. There’s no better way of getting the right scores than writing your own numbers on the scale.)
The United States is indeed “exceptional,” in ways that are objectively and historically verifiable. But at some level, this word spotlights familiar values divides -- between sincere but clear-eyed love of country and mere mindless jingoism; between righteousness and self-righteousness; between the greatness of the American promise and the constant challenge of American realities.
This country is so exceptional that we find ourselves in a quandary over what to do about all the people who want to come here, the ones a statue in New York Harbor says are welcome.
It’s exceptional because our governing document has withstood more than two centuries of political abuse by people who claim to champion it.
It’s so exceptional that it doesn’t have to conscript its defenders -- they volunteer to risk their lives in God-forsaken desert and mountain hellholes.
What “exceptional” must never mean is that principles of common humanity and fundamental decency don’t apply to us because we’re by God America and we’re the exception.
When we believe that wrong done in our name ceases to be wrong because it’s in our name, we will be exceptional no more. We will be like every other empire that has risen, only to be washed away in the ebb and flow of the human tide.