I was thinking about that last month – before Colin Kaepernick made his stand or, rather, took his seat, and provoked a much-needed debate on this topic - when our friends came to visit us from London and we showed them glimpses of the "real" America. Shockingly for this cynical, liberal, urban girl, I felt my heart swell with patriotism every time we introduced a new aspect of our country to our English friends. Gazing across the Shenandoah Valley from Skyline Drive and cheering for the Nats at a baseball game provoked in me particular exuberant pride for the United States.
In the midst of a national park, you can almost be forgiven for imagining yourself a 17th century colonist with the majesty of miles and miles of untouched wilderness at your feet. What the early settlers must have thought when they beheld the virgin land before them! What promise it must have held, what possibilities, what potential for those Europeans. Except, obviously, North America wasn’t waiting to be discovered at all; thousands of Native Americans lived here, and the opportunities that white settlers took for themselves were claimed on the graves of men with darker skin. Standing atop one of the highest peaks of one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, though, with only the sounds of birds in your ears, and the incredible wonder of what America could be in the future – it’s easy not to think about that.
Similarly, the bubble of a baseball stadium shelters us from the realities of what's happening on our streets. Sports games, fireworks displays, holiday parades - they're bread and circuses for most, designed to distract us from what it really means to be American for so many of us. No one worries about how having a child might derail her career while cheering on a home run. No one stresses about whether or not he's going to be able to make rent while oohing and aahing over a spectacular explosion in the sky above as Sousa blares from nearby speakers. No one wonders how many Blacks were detained, how many Muslims harassed, how many women assaulted while we stood in the stands and watched balloons drift off the floats driving past. Part of the magic of these events is that when we buy our tickets we are also handed license to ignore everything beyond the game. As Brandon Marshall, a Broncos linebacker, noted after receiving criticism for joining his teammate’s protest, “A lot of time people want us to just shut up and entertain them.”
That’s willful ignorance. We know what’s out there – we just don’t want to face it. We want to run from it to the middle of nowhere. We want to hide from it in a crowd of screaming fans. We want to pretend, even if just for a little while, that there’s nothing wrong with the United States of America.
Some people’s patriotism lives solely in that willful ignorance. That is, I believe, a large part of why Trump’s chorus of “Make America Great Again” has risen to such a crescendo. But I think just as many – and hopefully more – people’s patriotism lives in boundless optimism. It lives in the understanding that America isn’t as great as it can be and, also, that it’s never been as great as it can be. I’m not one for American exceptionalism in the past, present, or future, but the hope that we can be better than we ever have been is an incredible motivator towards patriotism.
We need boundless optimism for this. It doesn’t dismiss reality, but it does declare that things can’t and won’t stay the same or, God forbid, regress. The patriotism of boundless optimism is the patriotism of Ben Watson, Baltimore Ravens tight end, who said, “I stand because this mixed bag of evil and good is my home. And because it’s my home, my standing is a pledge to continue the fight against all injustice and preserve the greatest attributes of the country, including Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel.”
It’s the patriotism of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.And it’s the patriotism of everyone who comes back home from the wilderness or from the ballgame and gets stuck into politics, using our voices and our platforms in whatever way we can to affect progress in and for this country.
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