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036Do you love your country?

For some folks that must be an easy one to answer. For at least a few of us it is a bit more difficult, not the least of reasons for this being the hint of blackmail in the question. Few things will chase off ones affections quite so effectively as the feeling that one is being bullied into it.

It hasn’t always been that difficult.

I remember a particular July 4th (1980, I think) when it was particularly easy for me to say how I felt about my country. I and my rifle team were representing the state of Wyoming at the Daisy International BB-Gun championships in Bowling Green, Kentucky. (As I recall, teams came from 48 states plus Mexico and Japan, …hence the “International” part of a primarily American contest.)

Those that have read my comments about the rights of gun-owners (or at least about some of the crap-rhetoric produced in support of those rights), might wonder just what I was doing at such an event, let me just say that I was a very different person at 14. I should add that the NRA was also a very different organization at the time.

If your guessing that a double-dose of God and country were part of that ideology, then you are guessing right. With the whole shooting contest falling on Independence Day, you can imagine what the night’s festivities were like. The fireworks were spectacular, and spectacularly close. Bits and pieces fell on us as we looked up in the sky. But long before that bit came the Star Spangled Banner. Standing there, with my hand on my heart, representing my state, I couldn’t have loved my country anymore without causing something to pop.

That was many years before college, before reading certain books, before meeting certain people, before I developed a grasp of the news, and well before I had come to see Ronald Reagan as anything but the best damned President ever to eat a jelly bean in the Oval Office.

It was also well before anyone had ever suggested that a dirty commie like me ought to go live in someplace like China.

Faced with that one, I always wanted to respond with something along these lines; “I live in a Constitutional Democracy where I get to say what I want about m government; if that doesn’t sit well with you, then why don’t you leave!?!” That probably wouldn’t have been the most constructive thing to say, but it would have felt good. …I honestly don’t remember if I ever actually said that, or even if I had many real chances to. I just remember that it was always the response that jumped to mind in the face of the love-it-or-leave-it gambit.

What my pet response does reveal is a conventionally liberal sense of patriotism, a notion that for all it’s problems, American government embodies some principles worth keeping, principles that may help us sort the problems for that matter. The point of this line of thinking was at least partly to take (or perhaps to take back) ownership of the values turned against me (and others) in such rhetoric. It was also, at least partly the emotional response of someone who actually did love his country, perhaps even enough to simply lash out when called on the issue.

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Which reminds me, somewhere the Lakota writer, Vine Deloria Jr. once wrote that one of the ironies of American patriotism was that it could be expressed both by waving a flag and by burning it. …Deloria could be a very wise man, indeed.

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I don’t know that I fully embrace that conventional liberal account of this country anymore. The classic themes of liberal politics now compete with criticisms far more sweeping than that, a sense that some of our nation’s problems are beyond the scope of its present virtues. This is perhaps one reason why my July 4th posts are typically filled with self-reflection rather than unabashed celebration.

…although I really just don’t do unabashed celebration.

In the end, I would have to say that I do love my country. I love my country in much the same way that I love my family. Growing up, it is easy to believe in the exceptionalism of one’s own kin, to think of them as standing a head taller than others in one form or another. When you are a child, it is easy to think of the differences between other families one’s own as confessions of sorts on their, each deviance from one’s own model being a flaw in the make-up of other families.

There comes a day (let us hope) when the illusion falls away and one comes to realize that his own father is not necessarily the wisest, bravest, and strongest man that ever lived, that Mother’s love is not quite as pure as a field of fresh snow, and that one’s siblings are not truly unique in their virtues. There comes a time, when one learns to see in the flaws and personal squabbles of his family a fatal case against its superiority. Each of your kin has their merits and their flaws, but what neither you nor any member of your family can really claim is an exalted place above the world of others. And for most of us (again, …let us hope) one goes on loving his family long after realizing this.

You go on loving your family, not because you are deluded about their special qualities, but because they are yours. You feel their heartaches in your own chest, their victories in your own smile, and their frustrations in your own pulse. So too with one’s country. Much as a running feud with a sibling, complaints against your country become yet another source of connection to it, and if you allow this to happen, one which ties your aspirations to the welfare of the nation.

I should add I don’t see anything particularly noble in this sense of affection. I certainly don’t see it as obligatory, and bear no ill-will against those that don’t feel it. I won’t be sneering at those for whom this ambling excuse for a post doesn’t resonate. It’s just my own sense of how I feel about my country. I do love it, not because I think it’s exceptional, but because it is mine.