The 4th of July has always been my favorite holiday. (Sorry Christmas lovers, your holiday is cold and stressful.) I love high summer, warm nights, fireworks, barbecues, and swimming in the Ohio River. I love music and dancing and, yes, perhaps one beer too many. I’ll even accept a few country songs, but on this day only. This year, naturally, the celebration was a bit different. This was good, for safety reasons but also because it gave me space to reflect on my changing feelings about The United States. Because, up until a few years ago, I unequivocally and unquestioningly loved America.
America is like a father that you idealize as a child. He seems perfect, kind, and wise. He is unquestionably just and unflinchingly brave. Then you grow up, and you realize that your dad has the capacity for dishonesty. He can be cruel. You realize there are people who genuinely don’t like your dad at all, and those people have good reason. And you become angry at your dad for deceiving you. But it wasn’t really a deception. Your dad is just a person. Your country is just a country.
Letting Go of Patriotic Correctness
Patriotic Correctness is a term I’ve coined to describe an obligation to make certain grandiose statements about The United States. One such statement, popular on The 4th of July, is “The USA is the Greatest Country on Earth!”
Obviously, there is no objective way to measure “greatness” of any one country. If you measure it in history or art, America wouldn’t come out first. If you measure it in “freedom” – which is immeasurable – you could say that, yes, the USA was the first modern Representative Democracy. But is being first the same as being best? Other countries gave women and minorities the right to vote before we did. Did those countries surpass us in greatness at that point? Other countries have ranked choice voting, universal health care, and a more representative party system. Other countries don’t struggle with gun violence like we do. Are they better than we are? Probably not. They have plenty of their own issues.
“My Dad is the greatest Dad in the world!” might be something I said at eight years old. That’s not something I would say now. But it’s okay to let go of superlatives when expressing love. It’s okay to let go of patriotic correctness.
The 4th of July and Other American Dreams
At some point in the process of my patriotic coming-of-age, I settled on the idea of America being about a dream. Sure, we were imperfect. Sure, not everyone had freedom when we were founded. But look how far we’ve come. The 4th of July, I reasoned, was the celebration of the ideal of America, not the reality. It was a celebration of, as Lin Manuel Miranda wrote, “the notion of a nation we now get to build.” But there is a problem with this conception as well. Because a dream, even the best dream, is not enough. The dream has never been enough for so many Americans who wake up to find reality very different.
At this point, a patriotically correct person will probably say to me: “So what if America isn’t perfect? Go find a perfect country and live there.” I know very well that there is no perfect country. But this doesn’t give us permission to default back to America being the Greatest Country on Earth. The United States is my home. I am an American. That is enough.
Grasping for Patriotic Adulthood
I do not think the American Experiment has failed. Far from it. But I do know that experiments can fail. Empires do fall. American is not immune to failure. America is not God. It is not infallible. The phrase “America is Great” is not a tautology. If it is great, it is because American People are great. We refuse to settle and we refuse to be complacent. We strive for the best possible relationships to our history and to ourselves, with the understanding all of us are imperfect. But that striving, that grasping, is in itself a form of love. It’s an adult love, not a childish one.
It’s love that says “I see you for what you are. I’m not going anywhere. Let’s fix it.”