Pledging allegiance to what?

Fireworks on the front lawn, singeing the asphalt. I call them fireworks, when actually they are more a cheap excuse for roman candles. There is a get-together, my parents host a picnic: uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, their dogs. My pug’s birthday is today, on Independence Day; most likely he is three, or four, and his wrinkled-up face is graying. During the evening when the sun sets and the sky grows dark, we gather on the driveway, where neighbors join and stake their lawn chairs in a circle. Around this time someone rises, wearing a tee shirt of a bald eagle, and they say, “God bless America.” Behind him the American flag oscillates above our garage.

The fourth of July. Every year I swear it becomes more irrelevant. As a child I admired the fireworks, the aura of a summer picnic, the radio stations blasting “Party in the U.S.A.” But as a child I also had no political identity, and whether it’s convenient or not to remember, Independence Day is a politicized holiday. With every firework there’s a military parade, with every barbecue there’s the knowledge that our president is caging immigrants, stripping abortion rights.

Perhaps a love for one’s country is not a love for one’s government. Fine. Yet even the history of Independence Day was built on the backs of slave-owners; when First Lady Abigail Adams urged her husband to “remember the ladies” when declaring independence, John coincidentally forgot to. How to admire my country when it’s jailed, let die, discriminated against, and prohibited my peoples?

Personally I find this dumb patriotism to be ignorance born from ignorance. Why be blindingly proud of a nation when history warns against that, when it advocates that we examine our past and progress from there? How can we be expected to grow beyond war, to put an end to oppression, when we hero-worship the likes of Christopher Columbus, of Thomas Jefferson, of, albeit British, Winston Churchill? Why celebrate awful things, simply because its result was good?

If I must put a term to it, I am a globalist; I despise the concept of nationhood. To be proud of one’s country means to dislike another’s. When we say we are proud of America, that’s only because we’re relieved we’re not of the Middle East, of Latin America. Because we hate them; or, actually, we hate what we’ve done to them. We war-ravaged the Middle East, we militarized Latin America, we colonized Africa, we set off atomic bombs in Asia.

“I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism,” Ursula K. Le Guin writes in The Left Hand of Darkness. “I mean fear. The fear of the other.” If the philosophy of patriotism truly had a foundation in love, there’d be no such thing as nationhood, borders, states. When we say we love our country, what we mean is we love its mountain ranges, we love its beaches and lakes and national parks. We appreciate our freedom of speech, our freedom of the press, not because we grasp these freedoms, but because we take them for granted; not because we have the knowledge that other places lack this, but because we fear that they do. We fear immigration because with it harbors international expectations, with it reminds us there’s an entire planet outside our borders. Nationalism is militant, patriotism is of self-interest and egoism.

Love and fear are not the same thing; they cannot exist where the other does. And what patriotism does is engender an us versus them narrative, one that equates love with fear, and from that war arises, nuclear weapons. Humanity will be better off once we join together as a planet, and not as minutely drawn nations making up a whole. Regardless how romantic the ideal is, we need to stop emphasizing division and highlight our humanity.

How can love so easily become bigotry? Possibly because it never was love in the first place.

Image: “Retroactive I,” Robert Rauschenberg (1963)

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