Over the last several weeks there have been increasingly angry, bitter, and hostile exchanges in the blogosphere on patriotism and anti-Americanism. See here, here (keep scrolling up), and here. Be sure to read the comments. Some of this has been occasioned by the recent celebration of the Fourth of July, some by the release of Michael Moore’s documentary, and some by the increasing temperature of the U. S. presidential campaign.
All of the division and acrimony saddens me enormously. In the interest of reducing the temperature and volume of the discussion, I’d like to offer some reflections based on quotations from some famous Americans on what it means to be pro-American and, by implication what it means to be anti-American.
In every nation and at every time—except for some brief periods of madness—it has been common for human beings to reflect on the wisdom of those who have gone before us. It’s out of fashion right now for some reason or another but maybe we can revive an ancient and universal custom.
The first quote is from George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796:
Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.
First and foremost to be pro-American you must love America. America has a big heart and there’s room to love other places and even other countries. But America must be first in your affections. Never be ashamed to be patriotic.
Perhaps the Armenian poet said it best: “I love my country because it is mine.” And you should love America for what she is rather than what she has been or what she might be.
The second quote is from The Declaration of Independence
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
As G. K. Chesterton said so well, America is a country founded on a creed, a creed about human things. Want to know what the creed is? That’s it. Right above here. If you look down on or despise your fellow Americans (or anyone else for that matter) you may have a lot of great and wonderful qualities but you are not pro-American.
The third quote is from Lincoln’s Second Annual Address to Congress:
We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.
To be pro-American you must believe in American exceptionalism. You absolutely must believe that America is good and that America is special and has a special role in the world. And, by the way, this doesn’t mean you can’t believe in Canadian exceptionalism, or French exceptionalism, or Iraqi exceptionalism. But you must believe that America is different than other countries and that that’s a good thing.
My fourth quote is from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address:
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
If the be all and end all of your philosophy is looking out for Number 1, you can be a lot of things but pro-American is not among them.
And while I was looking at President Kennedy’s speech I was struck by the following on a slightly different subject:
So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Perhaps that’s something we should all think about.
And for my fifth quote you’ll pardon me if I quote again from the greatest of Americans, Abraham Lincoln. I can’t add a thing to it because it’s as true, fresh, and relevant today as it was 140 years ago. From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.