On this Fourth of July, I’ve been giving careful thought to what this day signifies. For Americans, this is a date that means more than barbecue grills in the backyard or colorful stars blossoming in the night sky, more even than patriotic music and red-white-and-blue flags rippling in the breeze. These are time-tested symbols, but if we do not look closely and remember, we risk seeing the symbols only and not the underlying reality at which they point.
America’s history is far more than spidery letters on crackling yellow parchment. Our past is a living past, one that still shapes our present in intricate and subtle ways, and we forget it to our detriment. We who have the privilege of being citizens of the United States of America should consider ourselves patriotic, for in truth, we have a great deal to be patriotic about.
At our country’s dawning, we fought a revolution that threw off the yoke of tyranny and shone out like a fiery beacon to freedom fighters all across the world, prevailing heroically over seemingly insurmountable odds. We were the first to proclaim that government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. We are the country that reintroduced liberal democracy to the world after its long sleep during the dark ages of medievalism, reviving the rational spirit of the ancient Greeks and fusing it with the best thought of the Enlightenment. We set a precedent by writing natural law and human rights into our founding Constitution, building our new republic on what is still the strongest and best scaffolding of ideas ever devised.
America’s achievements did not end with its founding. A serpent of slavery had lain coiled around the heart of our nation since its founding, and when it finally arose to exact its debt, we faced and defeated it. We were nearly riven asunder in a terrible civil war, but those on the side of right won out, and our union was recreated stronger than ever. We fought against nativism and xenophobia to create a multicultural society, crowning our harbor’s gates with the symbol of liberty, not of conquest.
When humanity faced its darkest hour, America answered the call. We stood up to tyranny from both the extreme left and the extreme right, smashing the genocidal Axis powers and prevailing over Communism in a test of will. We ended two world wars and won the Cold War, carrying the world safe through the dark days of nuclear brinksmanship, and nurtured the democracy that flourished after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In recent years, we have brokered and defended peace in ancient trouble spots, including Northern Ireland and the Balkans. Today, we still have stronger protections for freedom of speech and freedom of religion than almost anywhere else in the world, and we are still a multicultural society explicitly built on welcoming immigrants of all nations and cultures.
Not just in statecraft, but in science has America given back to the world. We can fairly claim to have invented the light bulb, the automobile, the telephone, the airplane, the personal computer, and the Internet. We were first to split the atom, first to walk on the Moon, shared the honor of discovering the structure of DNA, first to crack the genetic code. We are still one of the scientific leaders of the world, making countless new discoveries every year that hold out hope to improve the human condition. Likewise, in the marketplace of ideas and culture America dominates. Whether for better or for worse, our symbols and our language have spread across the world, such that even those who resent and loathe them cannot deny their influence.
And yet, the United States has far too often been less than a shining example. Despite all that we have done, there are still many things we failed to do.In social progress, it cannot be denied that we have often lagged other nations. We were latecomers in freeing our slaves and granting women the right to vote. Even after the institution of slavery was toppled, the taint of racism lingered, giving rise to an agonizing and burdensome scheme of segregation that took another revolution to eliminate. Even today, decades after these unjust laws were struck down, women and minorities still suffer from their pernicious legacy.
Today, we still have tens of millions who are trapped in appalling poverty, dwelling in the shadows of our society, their predicament largely overlooked and ignored. We still lack the basic guarantee of universal health care, a right that most citizens of industrialized countries have long since taken for granted. We still imprison vastly many more people than almost any other country in the world, meting out draconian sentences to non-violent offenders with scarce evidence of any deterrent effect. We still lavish enormous amounts of money on military spending while the basic needs of so many go begging or go unmet. We still, far too often, turn a blind eye to poverty and human rights violations around the world. In a country that has given the world so many scientific achievements, we still have a populace that suffers from pervasively high levels of scientific ignorance on even basic matters of fact, and a leadership that refuses to confront the looming problem of global climate change. In America, as in virtually no other industrialized nation, intolerant, militaristic religion still wields a frightening degree of influence.
Just as our history has its high points, it has its low points as well. Our nation’s founding generation visited terrible cruelties on the native people who inhabited this land. We have started many wars of belligerence and imperialism. In times of war and crisis, we sometimes came perilously close to becoming what we stood against, blacklisting or imprisoning countless individuals without benefit of trial. On many occasions we betrayed our own stated principles by seeking to limit free speech, deport foreigners, deny accused people the rights they are due, that are supposed to protect us all. Far too often, we have voted for leaders who used prejudice and demagoguery to divide us, who governed by appealing to what is worst in people rather than what is best.
Despite this catalogue of national sins, I do not hate the United States of America. On the contrary, I love my country. The good works we have wrought in the world are vast, and I do not think the black marks in our ledger outweigh them. It would take a far worse act than any we have yet committed to do that.
Instead, I mean to call attention to America’s uniquely paradoxical nature. We are a democracy that for decades denied the right to vote to over half its citizens. We are a nation founded on the idea that all people are created equal, and yet one that enshrined slavery and discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin. We have fought against tyranny, and yet we have so often been tyrants ourselves. We have made great, pioneering scientific achievements, and yet we still wrestle with primitive religious superstitions that most rational people long since ceased taking seriously.
When I say I am a patriot, I do not mean that I give my support to America blindly, regardless of its actions. Blind allegiance is the worst form of false patriotism. Instead, I owe allegiance to America’s ideals and founding principles, more so than to any action it is taking at any given time. When we as a nation have lived up to those ideals, we have accomplished truly great things. When we have fallen short of those ideals, we have committed grievous wrongs. America is a paradoxical place, but it is the one I call home, and I am not ashamed of it. When we go astray, I think of the famous words of another great statesman and reformer of our past: “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.“