A man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition

I feel like I should say something here, since this is the only holiday of any kind I’m likely to celebrate for awhile. On the other hand, it’s really important to me to keep this blog resolutely unpolitical, which has been increasingly difficult as I perceive the public sphere disintegrate in the U.S. And it’s hard to write about a national holiday without being political. So I hope everyone reads this as a good-faith statement of my perceptions of and wishes for the country that I love.

“The Great American Melting Pot,” Schoolhouse Rock! (1977)

We live in a world organized according to the prerogatives of the nation-state. It’s possible to imagine other constellations of political authority, and others have existed in the past, but this is the one we live in right now. Given that framework, I’m grateful to be a citizen of the U.S. This completely arbitrary circumstance has probably contributed more than any other factor to the quality of the life I have led. Civic education in the 1970s where I grew up had an honest but strongly positive strain to it: the U.S. has had problems with delivering on its promises, but it has worked to improve itself and it has the potential to protect the self-evident rights of the Declaration of Independence for everyone in its boundaries. That this message was so strong in my education probably had something to do with the coincidence of my entry into first grade with the U.S. bicentennial celebrations — and I didn’t see everything that was problematic about this vision of “being American” until I was in college and had met a few more people and seen a little more of the world. My awareness of the problems with the “melting pot” idea notwithstanding, I really want that to be true and it’s a canon of faith for me up there with my desire for G-d to exist in actuality and not just in the imagination.

I don’t think that liking the U.S. or wanting it to be a great country, or the large investment of the male members of my family in serving our country in the military (and their wives’ investment in supporting that) requires me to turn my mind, off, though, or ignore things that happen right in front of my face. I was in a conversation with someone yesterday who was arguing that this event was proof of what a great country the United States is. Maybe so. Still, freedom is only ever freedom in a context; my exercise of my freedoms always has an impact on your well-being, too. I find that this insight is also practically self-evident, and too often neglected in public policy discussions in the U.S. at the moment. My patriotism consists in the sense of loyalty to country that Plato has Socrates give voice to in the Crito, and not in the nationalist or libertarian senses that I find so often predominate in discussions on this day. The point of the colonial revolt against Great Britain for me is the attempt to create new laws — “to institute new government,” as the Declaration says — not the desire to abandon law altogether that I so often see read into it today. I think it’s possible to argue that government should potentially leave more room for conscience than it does, but not that conscience should be abandoned, either in favor of the controlling state or unlimited license.

Of course, many people in the U.S. don’t think very carefully about their patriotism on the Fourth. It’s a day to let it shine. Also, to eat a lot of food. The Servetuses are no exception in this regard: we’re having bratwurst and potato salad along with the favorite picnic food of each attendee at the feast. (Because brats are the quintessential Wisconsin summer food, and because, uch, who would eat a wiener when she could have a brat, as my mother would say: a northern German attitude that’s survived the generations here in the Diaspora.) The holiday has a religious feature for my parents. There was church yesterday and there’s church tonight. My parents will go tonight with my brother and his family. I went with them yesterday and we sang some patriotic hymns, especially, “God of our Fathers / Whose Almighty Hand.” (We didn’t sound as good as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but Lutherans do like to sing.)

(In case you’re curious, in the U.S. most Jewish liturgies include a prayer for their country every week, but there wouldn’t be an extra Fourth of July service. Orthodox Jews, of course, are praying their regular prayers three times today. The “three weeks” of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the Temple start on July 19 this year by the solar calendar, but only a tiny fraction of non-Orthodox Jews are even aware of these fasts. I’m planning to fast on Tisha B’av, but mostly because the liturgy is so great, and I feel too abashed to go to shul without the fast — the feeling is not the same.)

But just we can use the national holiday to relax doesn’t mean we should stop thinking — even if we disagree about whether church is the right place to do it. If you were going to ask me to pick a song to sing on the Fourth, my mood inclines a little bit more toward “Lift E’vry Voice and Sing.” I learned this song when it made it way into the The Lutheran Hymnal in the late 1970s.

Why should I, the possibly whitest person on the planet, pick the so-called “Black National Anthem” as my musical selection for today?

It has something to do with celebrating the holiday outside of the U.S. for thirteen straight years — when not everyone is celebrating, you have to ask yourself why you are. And then ask yourself: why do Americans celebrate? Do you know what’s in the Declaration of Independence? The U.S. Constitution? Can you even list the sequence of the U.S. presidents? (I spent one slightly drunken Fourth doing this with a mixed group of U.S. and German friends and it was embarrassing how much more of our history the Germans knew than we did.) Being outside gives one a different perspective on something I find impressive about the U.S. — the amazing opportunities available to Americans — but about which I am also critical: the fact that they are not available in equal measure to all of us.

One thing the history of minority groups demonstrates to me is the significance of understanding law rather than personhood as the guarantor of freedom — and this, one must concede, is a position not entirely consonant with that of the Declaration of Independence, which sees certain human freedoms as inalienable. (Yes: outing myself as that rare and contradictory animal: the Burkean liberal. This attitude comes from having read too much Hannah Arendt and often gets me in trouble.) What the history of the struggles of minority groups in the U.S. demonstrate in terms of practical political theory is that mere personhood didn’t get them very far, as their opponents refused to acknowledge that personhood. So instead, they fought hard, and they fought using the laws, and breaking unjust laws, to point out their unjustness, to achieve their ends. So I like this song because it legitimates my inability to look away from certain facts: the U.S., as noble as its dream is, does not always live up to that dream in reality. That it perhaps does that more often than many other nation-states is no reason for us to rest on our laurels. Mostly, because it acknowledges things in the U.S. are not perfect but that hope for a better U.S. moves us onward. We believe in the ideal even as we acknowledge the reality. Where inalienable rights come in is not as a concrete fact, but as a conceptual motivator. If I have inalienable rights as a person, so must you, and my work to guarantee my freedoms must necessarily also guarantee yours.

To me, the most compelling piece of the U.S. story lies in its capacity to absorb all sorts of ideals, all kinds of people. The citation in the title to this post comes from Pericles’ funeral oration for the war dead of Athens — a list of ideals that were also less fully realized in Athens than the Greek authors who have come down to us would have acknowledged, but which are worth thinking about and emulating. An open society. Courage. Respect for law. Deliberation. Freedom. Like the U.S., Athens was also the nexus of an empire, as Thucydides reminds us later in his history of the Peloponnesian war, and highly susceptible to a dangerous demagoguery that brought it down in the end. But it had the potential to be so much more. He hits hard on the meritocracy of his society, and that always makes me think of the dream of America embodied in “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus that’s on the base of the State of Liberty:

The New Colossus (1883)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That’s the America I want to believe in, the one I learned about in social studies when I was a kid, the country that can make room, and an opportunity, for everyone who comes. The country where everyone is equal before the law. Yes, I realize the controversy of that claim especially now — on so many levels: in the atmosphere of immigration reform, economic struggles, the failure of the U.S. to live up to its promise even for many of its most vulnerable citizens, the question of the extent of the assimilation of people who come here.

Even so, I refuse to stop believing in this dream. That’s my America on July Fourth — the one that people have hoped for, with hopes they would not let die, the one I believe she could be.

~ by Servetus on July 4, 2011.

12 Responses to “A man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition”

  1. I love this post. I want to comment but am on a train. Will follow up later.


  2. Happy Fourth of July! I really like this post. I am finding it difficult not to get political on my blog too. It is good that we know we do have a right to make political statements, but perhaps I would need to do so on a different type of blog. Having that freedom is what makes democratic countries like both of ours worth celebrating!
    Enjoy your bratwurst! 🙂


    • I just don’t want to get in political discussions here. There are other places on the internet where I could do that — but I honestly am starting to think that the internet is part of the problem.

      Loved the Canada cake on your blog — I think it must be harder to make the design of the Canada flag than of the US flag when it comes to cakes.


  3. Thank you for this very honest and hard hitting post. Every July 4th I feel ambivalent. On one hand I’m fortunate to be born American; on the other hand there are still those here who have no real access to the much vaulted opportunity. I’m keenly aware that over 50 years ago, the idea of my fortunate state was debatable. I ponder what it means to be American when I hear about increasing overt racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and other exclusionary attitudes when this country was founded on policies of theoretical inclusion (I say theoretical because that’s not what was implemented).

    You’re correct that patriotism does not equal nationalism, xenophobia, or mindless adherence to a party line, but those appear to be the flavors of the day. “My country, right or wrong” does not mean what many think it does. There is such a thing as responsible patriotism. As you stated, it’s fine to celebrate the ideal but one must acknowledge the reality. That can’t be done by rewriting textbooks to adhere to a particular ideology, whitewashing history, and denying dark times in this country’s past. America erodes its integrity every time it says “Come, this is a land of opportunity,” well, “Except for those people.” We cannot move forward as a nation until we learn from our mistakes. For many, they are still waiting for that to happen.

    When I was child, I waved my little flag because I loved my country, it was a simply display of old fashioned patriotism, the only kind I knew. Now when I encounter a residence festooned with a flag, I wonder about the person who felt strongly enough to display it. What does it really mean to them? Mostly, I wonder, what flavor is their patriotism? It never before occurred to me think that. Still I’m optimistic things will change because this is my country after all.

    This is my favorite verse of the Black National Anthem:

    Sing a song full of the faith that the
    dark past has taught us,
    Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
    facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
    let us march on till victory is won.


    • I was wondering eafter I wrote this if I was overreacting to what seemed like jingoism to me after spending over a decade away from the news on July 4th, so thanks for making me feel a little less off the map with your comment.

      I’m pleased that our history gives us the potential, indeed the mandate, to change until we have fulfilled our goals — just discouraged at the tone of stuff lately. I also admit that this has something to do with having left la raza behind in TX (though Austin is a very white city) and moved to the Great White North.


  4. An excellent post with many good points. Really shows that you’re a compassionate and well-educated person, Servetus, and I respect and admire you all the more for it. 🙂


    • Thanks, Trax 🙂 I suppose the question would come in when I started not expressing compassion for someone on this blog 🙂 Believe me there are plenty of people for whom I struggle to feel compassion.


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