Celebrated author Erma Bombeck wrote, “You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4th, not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you’ve overeaten, but it is patriotism.” I’ll bet you dimes to doughnuts that Drumpf and his family have never gone to a picnic, yet they claim to be patriots.
I love Erma’s simple American rah-rah. However, to express my own brand of patriotism, I need to see your Bombeck and raise you a James Baldwin, who said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
A parallel to alcoholism can be drawn here. Hang on, it’ll make sense. If you see patriotism as similar to the other “isms” — alcoholism, racism, sexism, etc. — wisdom can be gained by practicing abstinence and applying the 12 Steps on a national level. That is, abstinence from the either/or “America, love it or leave it” kind of patriotism, which mirrors drunk-like thinking.
Some insist that if we talk about our American flaws, we aren’t patriotic. That’s complete retro-crap. I hue more to the precepts of AA when it comes to our country. I dearly love America, and — while it has its blessings and gifts — it also has serious issues that have not been reckoned with fully. In 12-Step parlance, it’s time to make amends for these flaws, “flaw” being a gross understatement regarding slavery, genocide, internment camps… the list is tragically too long for an 800-word column.
Yes, we fought for independence from the oppression of Great Britain, and it’s proper to mark that accomplishment. In my not-so-humble opinion, we also need to take responsibility for what we’ve done to others. Unless and until we are honest, open and willing to take responsibility for our gains made off the backs of those we oppressed, we will all suffer in this country.
I stand on my porch at night sometimes and look out over our array of plants, some of which are imports and some native, just like our human population. In lovely Altadena, I do my best to imagine when the Tongva were here before the Spanish came, followed by settlers. If I close my eyes, I can imagine a mother settling her children down for sleep or gathering her band of relatives around the fire and telling stories. Those stories initially did not include zealous white men in priestly robes or rapacious settlers. The woman and her family made peace with the flora and fauna of what is now Southern California. She dreamed of abundance.
How many of us think of the people who did not have freedom in 1776? Who makes amends to the people now who suffer at U.S. hands, past, present and future? Perhaps we would begin the road to healing if more of us followed the eighth step of AA: “Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.” Step eight in AA vernacular is an inventory.
The list of harmed people would be long, but, while daunting, not impossible to compile. We have many leaders, scholars, novelists and nonfiction authors who can get us started. We can and must push back against people who are doing their utmost to shut down others’ voices, whether it’s through the ransacking of reproductive rights, a rabid dedication to right-wing Christianity, white supremacy, male supremacy, the banning of books, censoring various curricula or gutting basic civics education. In my lifetime, I’ve seen public education go from dependable to almost vaporized. I’ve seen our populace morph from a mostly educated citizenry to one that gave rise to the dangerous morons who raided the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. That could only happen because of an ignorant populace.
Eleanor Roosevelt was prescient when she said, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry their own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”
I’m really not trying to be a Debbie Downer about the Fourth. I am simply lighting another type of firework: a roman candle of recognition and reconciliation with our nasty natures while being highly aware of our goodness, too. As one of the 21st century’s best writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, said, “Just because you came here in 1880, 1950, whenever, you became an American. You get to celebrate July 4th like every other American. You don’t just get the good part. You get the bad part, too. You get all of it.”
Meanwhile, have a meaningful Fourth and take Erma Bombeck’s advice — refrigerate that potato salad!
Ellen Snortland has independently written Consider This… for decades. A writing coach, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.