B&c wanted to go down to the mall to see the fireworks this year because he hadn't been in a long time. I called a few friends, and we arranged to meet for dinner in Bethesda (at Mon Ami Gabi, which calls itself a bistro, because, after all, Independence Day is a mere ten days before Bastille Day) and then take the Metro into DC for the fireworks.
While I am, as a matter of principle, in favor of anything that gives me a day off work, I have mixed feelings about Independence Day. Not about the fact of independence itself, mind you: I wouldn't want you to think that I was some Stilton-eating, crumpet-toasting Tory sitting in an overstuffed chair with my foot elevated to ease the pain from the gout while I harrumph about how we ought never to have been allowed to break away from Mother England. My mixed feelings have to do with patriotism.
If you take the simple definition of patriotism as "love for or devotion to one's country," then patriotism seems like a good, or at least benign, thing. I'd say I'm devoted to the U.S., at least insofar as I feel both indignant and protective when, say, people fly planes into our tall buildings or massive geometric military complexes. I think that it's difficult to say that one loves one's country simply because when you live somewhere, you really can't think of a place as a unitary entity. I mean, it's easy to say that I love Paris because I've only been there twice and both times I was on vacation and the last time was a few years ago, so it's relatively easy, from a distance, to think of it as a single place. If I lived there, though, I'd begin to think of it as bunches of little things, and there'd probably be this boulangerie that I loved and that charcuterie that I didn't much care for because the rillettes were a little bit dicey and that part of Bois de Vincennes where I love to take a picnic and that district right next to l'Ile de la Cite that I couldn't stand because of all the tourists. My relationship to the United States is similarly complex because I am immersed in it. There are certainly many places, people, and ideas here that I love, and there are others that I wish we could export to some foreign country that I'm never likely to visit. Maybe Zimbabwe.
When I stop to think about what it means to live in America and be an American, my main response is one of gratitude. Assume for the moment that reincarnation happens and that when you're done with this iteration of life, you're going to come back as a sentient being of some sort. Given those parameters, you'd be immensely fortunate to be a human being. And if you're coming back as a person, you really don't get much luckier than to come back as an American. I suspect that some, or perhaps many, of you might not agree with that assertion, but if you consider all the factors, especially freedom and opportunity, this is really the place to be born.
But it pays to keep in mind that being an American is, in fact, an accident of birth. And my problems with patriotism begin with the fact that most Americans consider the fact of their Americanness as both a significant accomplishment and an immense entitlement. And not so much as a gift that engenders any significant responsibility. If you talk with many Americans about immigration, for example, they will say (when you get through all the verbiage) that the people who want to immigrate to America want to take away what's rightfully ours. But what have they done to be entitled to the bounty of America? They were born here. And while being born here does require a significant amount of good fortune, it doesn't require any particular skill or merit.
I don't know whether patriotism is, indeed, the last refuge of a scoundrel. That may have been true at one time, but there are currently a lot of options, and nowadays, the last refuge of a scoundrel may very well be a reality TV show. I do know, however, that a strong sense of entitlement is a very dangerous thing.
When you feel entitled to something, it follows that you don't feel that you have to work for it and that you don't feel as much of a sense of responsibility for it as you would if you had had to work for it. Such was not always the case, and American history is replete with examples of the American populace sacrificing for common national goals. Now, though, the American way seems to be for those in power to delegate the suffering to those without power. Many of our politicians, especially the Republicans, do not appear to be overly concerned about asking other people to fight and die on their behalf. It has, of course, been at least a few centuries since the political leaders of a country could be expected to appear on the battlefield, but we might at least expect our politicians to sacrifice in some other meaningful way. But if you ask a Republican to, say, pay for the war that he's so eager to get into by enacting a tax increase, or even by repealing an immense and irresponsible tax cut, he will not even understand that he has any responsibility to the people he's asked to die in his place, let alone to the greater notion of America.
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" seems almost a quaint notion here in 2008. If I were more of a psychologist, I might say that our current lack of responsibility comes from seeing America as our collective parent rather than as our collective child. But I don't know that why many Americans behave as entitled spoiled brats matters as much as the fact that many of us do. In any case, when someone is telling you as his rights as an American, you might want to ask him what he's done lately to earn those rights, and if he tells you that he has them because he was born here, you might want to ask him a) how hard he had to work to be born here, and b) why he thinks that someone who was born somewhere else doesn't have the same inalienable rights. You might also want to remind that person that if how he shows his patriotism is by eating hot dogs, watching fireworks, and waving a flag, then he isn't quite on a level with, say, Nathan Hale. He may very well want to take a swing at you, but the chances are good that he's drunk, so you should be able to dodge his fists, if not his wrath.
Anyway, it's fortunate that one can go down to the Mall and watch the fireworks without being overwhelmed by excessive displays of patriotism, and we all had a good time last night. At dinner, I had some very nice seared sea scallops (and, by the way, I can order "seared sea scallops" without lisping) that were accompanied by spinach and whipped cauliflower. Yum. There were showers before, during, and after the fireworks, but I had brought a plastic drop cloth to go under the blanket, and we all had umbrellas, so we only had to get slightly wet during the actual fireworks show. Which was impressive without being overly long. And when it was over, not wanting to brave the largest crowds on the Metro, we walked until we found a bar. We got a table in an Asian restaurant bar and lounge. At some point, I saw three generations of an extended family walk by, each of them wearing an American flag t-shirt and/or ball cap (a desecration of the flag if ever there was one: someone should tell them about lapel pins), but I was in too good of a mood to do anything but sigh and take another sip from my South Korean beer.