The American View
Peter McGrath with bureau reports.
This is the text of an article that appeared in
"Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville 150 years ago, "than this irritable patriotism of the Americans." It was an era when Americans believed that their country was "God's new Israel," that they were a chosen people. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary to the day of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had died within hours of each other, inspiring a now forgotten but typical orator to find "the finger of Providence" in the coincidence: "It hallows the Declaration of Independence as the Word of God . .. that promises its principles shall be eternal, and their dissemination universal over the earth." It was a common boast at the time and for years afterward: the self-invention of a republic would set an example for the corrupt and cynical regimes of the Old World, and any foreigner who suggested otherwise was quickly told that criticisms of the young country must be limited to the quality of its climate and soil. "Even then," Tocqueville noted, "Americans will be found ready to defend both as if they had cooperated in producing them.''
Today it sometimes seems to be Americans themselves who are most embarrassed by the swaggering patriotism that irritated Tocqueville. Having lost its innocence in the first half of the century, the United States has proceeded in the second half to lose much of its self confidence as well. It makes a too-familiar litany: assassinations, race riots, war, Watergate, oil embargoes, inflation all culminating in the humiliation in Teheran and the charred bodies at Desert One. As the laidback generation of the 1970s becomes the laid off generation of the '80s, an almost un American apathy may even arise. According to 57-year old Cedric Pope, the last commander of American Legion Post 154 in Western Springs, Ill, before dwindling membership shut it down, the apathy has already appeared. "We used to march in parades and notice what happened when we'd carry the flag past a crowd," he says. "People don't come to attention anymore. Nobody salutes. Nobody takes their hat off. When the flag passes by, a little tickle ought to go up your spine. But a lot of that's dissolved now."
Mobility: And yet: Americans still know what sets them apart from other nationalities. Here is Joe Sraj, a 29yearold autoworker in Detroit who lost a high seniority job to a robot, but found a job-retraining program that provides part time work as he learns his new skills: "I just knew things would get better, given time, and they did. I had hope. I don't know if people in other countries can be that hopeful. That's why I'm glad I'm an American.'' In a less rueful moment, Cedric Pope, too, is reminded of the virtue of economic mobility: "One thing that makes America different is the way a person can earn a living and be free about it. You can move up in this society. My dad was a minister, and in a lot of societies I'd be stuck preaching for the rest of my life. Not in America." Nor do Americans take lightly their civil liberties.
"Freedom--we're still fighting for it. We don't absolutely have it yet," says Cecilia Bradley of Santa Monica, Calif., a 41yearold community activist whose father emigrated from Mexico. "But I know that when our little organization brings concerns to the city council, we're not told to go to hell; we're told, "We'll look into them." This country is a beautiful place, and when I speak my piece, I can speak it without the butt of a rifle over my head."
American patriotism has always had an elusive quality because it consists in
loyalty to a set or values and ideas rather than to a tribe or a piece of
land. And how could it be otherwise, in a self-invented society without
common traditions? Moreover, some of the values in question--devotion to
economic mobility and political freedom, which Americans almost alone in the
world tend to regard as inseparable--are inimical to the more rooted
patriotisms of the Old World because they undermine settled ways of doing
things. Economic mobility presupposes the end of hereditary ruling classes.
Political freedom presupposes permission to condemn the government, and to
'Envy': Perhaps inevitably, then, Americans
have never realized the July 4 orator's
belief that American principles
would become "universal over the earth." These principles are
expressions of an American restlessness, an eagerness to embrace change,
that other nationalities find mystifying if not actually repellent. Even a
Vietnamese immigrant to California tike Van Minh Tran of Oakland, while
praising Americans because "they like to go forward and never look back,"
says she regrets that attitude "when I see them tear down beautiful old
buildings to sell the land or to build new ones." In any case, as the
historian David M. Potter argued in his much admired book "People of
Americans live comfortably with the fundamental paradox of their patriotism:
on the one hand, it is based on individual self interest in economic and
political freedom, but on the other, it upholds a collective ideal of
willingness to sacrifice and even die for the country. This tension can be
resolved only by generalizing self interest into the future. As James Cobb,
a history professor at the University of Mississippi, puts it, "All
criticisms granted, we have been remarkably successful in terms of providing
continuing hope from generation to generation." The unemployed factory
worker keeps faith with the country because he clings to the idea that his
son may someday own the factory. In this, says Cobb, American patriotism is
unique: "It is a forward looking thing, responding to the necessity to
perpetuate the dream, rather than some vague tribal or even national
commitment." Nothing there to be embarrassed about.
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