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“That kind of made me want to move out of America.”
Those were the first words I muttered to friends after seeing The Big Short, the Best Picture-nominated film based on Michael Lewis’ book about the 2008 collapse of the U.S. housing market.
I didn’t really mean it — nor do I want to deal with the logistical hassle of living as an expatriate — but the film’s incisive verdict against America’s government and biggest financial institutions was terribly disheartening. The movie doesn’t restrain from slamming the metaphorical hammer down against those it perceives as being the debauched villains of the economic disaster: a greedy, corrupt banking system and a United States government who bailed out the irresponsibly rich without appropriate punishment.
My friends’ ensuing conversation about the movie — sparked by my negative remarks about America — unraveled into a debate about the definition of patriotism and an American citizen’s duty (or lack of duty) to be patriotic. Some of the questions discussed were lines of inquiry like:
Is patriotism mainly concerned with supporting American troops?
Is patriotism inseparable from American ideals like capitalism and democracy?
Is one political party more patriotic than the other?
Much of the dialogue surrounding patriotism revolves around the abstract and unexamined idea that there was once, long ago, a time when America was vibrant and healthy, when its leaders were chock-full of integrity and courage. Many Americans seem to believe that there used to be a semi-Utopian period in our country’s brief history when liberty was abundant and the hearts of citizens righteous. People who subscribe to this version of history voice a displeasure in the lack of patriotism they see in citizens today; they wish that things could go back to being like they used to be.
As a parent, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to talk about patriotism with my son.
Patriotism as a concept largely persists without critique – that’s my real problem with it. We wear Old Navy flag shirts on the Fourth of July, take off our ball caps whenever the national anthem is sung, and we toss around statements like “America is the greatest country in the world” without much regard.
It’s our failure to thoroughly examine and provide evidence for our patriotism that concerns me.
As a human being who’s lived in this country my entire life, I feel tension between a posture of pride and a posture of dissatisfaction toward America. There are some things about America I am evangelically pleased about: like us helping create baseball and jazz music, and our former dedication to exploring the cosmos. There are also some things about America I find despicable, like our obsession with war and apparent inability to select Presidential candidates who aren’t fascist buffoons.
As a parent, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to talk about patriotism with my son. I wrestle with what I’m going to tell him about America, and I’ve been trying to form a plan for engaging America’s history — the good, bad, and incredibly ugly — and talking to him about being “an American” in a healthy and productive way.
Out of those thoughts, and partnered with a desire to combine good and active citizenship within our country with authenticity and diligence, I’ve come up with 3 postures I see as vital when it comes to approaching patriotism — for ourselves as citizens, but particularly as we raise children in a country with a whole lot of debate about what it means to be a good citizen, or even a “patriot.”
Find Your Own Pride
The majority of events, traditions, and abstract concepts Americans feel patriotic about are so time-honored and traditional that the reasons and purposes for their existence aren’t questioned. I’m talking about things like celebrating Independence Day, reciting a pledge of “allegiance,” handling the presentation or disposal of American flags with extreme precision, and even an idea like liberty. I’m not saying these customs are necessarily bad; they are, however, simply assumed without much thought.
I want my son to know he doesn’t have to succumb to pressures to feel proud of something his country does or values just because other people do, or because he feels like he’s supposed to. Patriotism should be constructed. Patriotism should be earned by a country, not passed down by mere heritage. I hope my son finds things to feel patriotic about that aren’t cliche or simply tossed in with the concept of “American” — instead, I hope he finds things he’s truly passionate about to inspire his pride for country.
I hope he loves America for its natural beauty (one reason why I’ve made visiting national parks a priority), its significant advancements in scientific exploration, its impressive and impactful artistic offerings, and its human and civil rights victories. I hope he’s proud of America for characteristics and conduct that aren’t just passed along and forced upon him, but that he finds and evaluates himself. I hope he is critical where America deserves a smack on the face, and complimentary where merited.
Balance Truth With Tradition
Look, I’m not going to tell my boy about the The Trail of Tears when he’s in the first grade or describe the appalling effects of Agent Orange over a Happy Meal, but I don’t want him to be fed lies about the founding fathers, nor do I want America’s weakest moments and horrible failures to be swept under the rug in favor of witless flag-waving. I hope to have honest conversations — age appropriate — about America’s heritage and notable characters: even if it is a history strewn with racism, murder, genocide, and greed. Those conversations will be challenging, but difficult dialogue is what it takes to raise informed citizens who contribute to their communities in productive ways.
Patriotism should be constructed. Patriotism should be earned by a country, not passed down by mere heritage.
I’m not going to let him dress up as a “pilgrim” or an “Indian” without acknowledging that the first Thanksgiving wasn’t all feathers and turkey — it was marred by violent colonialism and eventual genocide.
I’m not going to allow my son to unwaveringly praise the founding fathers for their flawless integrity and compassionate motivation to create a country free from tyranny. Among the original leaders of America were slaveowners, sexual predators, and egocentric human beings. I want my son to be aware of the full spectrum of truths — not just cherry-picked characteristics.
Live Without Borders
Ultimately, I hope my son comes to understand that his responsibility as a human isn’t merely to the boundaries or population of his town, county, state, or country — but to a global community: namely, every single other human in the world. A country isn’t a specifically sacred thing, except in the way that everything is sacred and connected to each other. America is not better than any other country, and American lives are not more valuable than lives in Ireland, India, or Iraq. The concept of American Exceptionalism — the abstract idea that America has specifically notable attributes which makes its land, people, and way of doing government better than other lands, peoples, and systems — is destructive. American Exceptionalism has created a culture of selfishness and boasting where instead should exist generosity and humility — key ingredients to promoting peace in an increasingly global world.
I hope my son’s pride in America is self-chosen and carefully selected. I hope he’s as critical as he is gracious in evaluating the ideas, places, and people he aligns himself with. I hope he doesn’t pledge allegiance to anything simply because it’s “American.”
Instead, I hope he uses the gifts, lessons, and opportunities of his country to contribute to others: inside the borders of the United States and across the world.
Micah Conkling is a husband, father, and high school English teacher in Kansas City. He blogs about being a dad at The Fatherhood Diaries. Read more from him here: