Last Fourth of July, I stood in a throng of 20- and 30-something Bostonians on a large Beacon Hill roof deck, drinking beer and looking north towards the river, where barges served as staging grounds for the city fireworks. The show proceeded as usual: loud, rapidly expanding glitter-spheres melting into slow-arcing showers. Also featured this year were some novelty smiley-face fireworks that tended to pop upside down or sideways, extracting dutiful “ooh’s” from the revelers.
Fourth of July fireworks are insane, and insanely American: we explode them to echo the cruel boom of broken-bone-torn-tissue-charred-flesh cannon fire, and simultaneously to revel in our national genius for ever more enthralling spectacle. The combination is—or should be—jarring in its willful, brute innocence.
This particular night was warm and breezy. The party was mixed: invitees of two separate apartments in the building, including some British transplants, the odd journalist, and a garrulous pack of graduated frat boys who, by all indications, couldn’t figure out what comes after college, apart from making bank and projecting an air of in-the-know nonchalance that might appeal to the girls who’d stayed skinny after graduation, and those who hadn’t, exactly.
I was wearing my patriotic best: a red and white gingham Oxford shirt and navy khakis, purchased on credit during grad school. Flimsy stars-and-stripes sunglasses hung from my shirt button; my left hand held a can of craft-brewed American IPA, my right the waist of a new American girlfriend. I made a conscious effort to stand up straight, because that’s what men do, and I wanted the lady to know I was at least as tall as the bro-y investment analysts around us.
It was clear that this was a night to feel a lot of good things, and I did. I felt glad to be in my hometown—the best city in the world, I think—and with this particular woman. I was glad that the weather and beer were good, and that we had an expansive view of Boston, Cambridge, and the river, because they are beautiful in their different ways.
But these are all personal, particular feelings, and this night was also one for feeling broadly. So I tried a little, as the bombs burst, to tell myself: This is us. We are this. I tried to throw a sentimental lasso that would rope in the bro’s on the roof, the Shakespeare-acting, swing-dancing Scotsman who’d invited us, the NPR reporter we’d just met, the Brooks Brothers rewards-card holders on the surrounding rooftops.
And then maybe, for good measure, the blitzed-out-of-their-minds skaters, the screaming-Creole-into-her-phone Haitian woman, the Independence-Day-is-alright-for-fighting Dorchester guys with backward Sox hats and salty accents, all of whom we’d passed on Boston Common on our way from the subway to the patrician sanctuary of Beacon Hill. Then, of course, I had to rope in the Silicon Valley techno-utopians, the booze-and-coffee-eschewing Mormons of Utah, the smart-ass, goateed internet atheists from God knows where, the sweet, pious Midwesterners I knew only through A Prairie Home Companion… and so on.
Needless to say, it didn’t work. How could it? What sentimental lasso is big enough to gather a solid us from such varied material? Well, the big one, maybe: we’re all human. But that’s the problem: the basic human things I share with my fellow Americans, I share with pretty much everyone.
And so my attempts to gin up some decent patriotic sentiment failed. I felt nothing: nothing for America, nothing for liberty, nothing for these truths we hold to be self-evident, etc., etc. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one: the long post-fireworks party was peppered with “this is ‘MURICA, goddammit” mock-patriotism, delivered with the exaggerated machismo of young men negotiating their way, haltingly, toward genuine masculinity. Unsurprising jokes were made and made again: about SUVs and red meat, hair-triggered militarism and shitty water-beer.
There is, to state the obvious, something prima facie boorish about this cleverer-than-thou attitude, and perhaps also about the general lack of national piety on this well-appointed roof deck in the cozy heart of the cradle of liberty. As the fireworks loudly recall, men—a lot of men—have physically fought to make our Oxford-shirt-and-boat-shoe revelries possible.
So maybe I should have been ashamed at my lack of patriotism. But I just wasn’t. The smart-ass post-patriotism almost slipped under my radar, as it has most other Independence Days, because it would never occur to me to expect anything else from my tribe: young, educated Bostonians of whatever political stripe. I’d wager that all of us on the roof that night were grateful to live in a place where we can vote, start a business, and express ourselves freely, and grateful towards the ungodly number of young men shot and shredded and killed in our name. These are things any decent person would be thankful for, and there are times, places, and artifacts designed to help us remember them. But the Fourth of July is not a day for remembrance and giving thanks, exactly. It’s not a somber day. It’s a day to celebrate, to positively love, the thing that America is.
And this is where a lot of smart young people—especially those of us lucky enough to have been born here—get tripped up. It’s just damn difficult to figure out exactly what America is, who we are. And there are good reasons for this difficulty: an ambivalent, somewhat confused relationship with American patriotism is just honest and sensible. Not because America is especially worse than other nations—it’s not—but because it is fundamentally, categorically different.
The paucity of any gut-level, tribal sense of us in America is no accident. We don’t just happen to be a wildly variegated nation of immigrants with little to tie us together—that’s sort of the whole point. American culture is, by design, thin but hospitable: our particular quadrant of earth is meant to be loose-plowed and expansive, a soft place for immigrants to land and flourish, provided they want growth badly enough, and the weather more or less cooperates.
And so we keep the cultural entry costs low. The most important step to Americanization is assenting to a short list of philosophical propositions about the goodness of liberty, equality, capitalism, democracy—the sorts of propositions that Jefferson dashingly declared self-evident in the summer of 1776, now considered self-evident by basically the entire Western world and lots of places beyond. If you’re willing to do this much, and to learn a bit of English, you are hereby invited to open up your corner shop, to send your children to good schools, and basically settle into the great American chase along with the rest of us. But there’s even more: you are free, as you pursue this, to remain whatever you are: you can practice your accustomed religion, speak your native language as much as you like, celebrate your childhood holidays, etc., all while being fully American.
Compared with a more traditional nation-state—like France, for instance—America looks like a strange sociological experiment. Since at least 1789, French identity has been, like American identity, a matter of certain shared Enlightenment principles: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, approximately. But it is also, crucially, a matter of shared bloodlines, language, history, literature, and cuisine, things that originated long before the time of Rousseau and Voltaire. Can you be fully French having no taste whatsoever for Madame Bovary, Camembert, or Bordeaux? You cannot, at least not nearly to the degree that you can be American having never read Moby Dick (I’ve never finished it myself) or fancying what, hamburgers? Budweiser?
You could say that the French cultural topsoil is harder: becoming French is a life’s labor and costs a great deal. In order to accomplish it, you can’t be Nigerian or Albanian anymore. Visible signs of foreign religiosity—burkas, turbans, etc.—are legally restricted in the public sphere. You can bring along whatever skin tone and eye shape your mother gave you, but, s’il vous plait, leave the rest on the shore of your former fatherland, or at the very least, keep it indoors.
One downside to this cultural rigorism is that France takes forever to integrate her immigrants—or all too often fails to integrate them at all, in which case they frequently come to rest in suburban ethnic enclaves where their native tongue, cuisine, and customs sustain them. The French find this sort of segregation frustrating and disappointing, of course, but even more troublingly, these unintegrated remnants have in recent memory often turned into hotbeds of tribal hostility, directed toward the nation that has physically accepted them but has failed to fully embrace them in all their un-Frenchness.
America has no comparable problem with integration, because becoming American is comparatively easy. But there is also an upside to the French model: once you’ve penetrated a hard, rocky topsoil like France’s, your roots find dense earth to hold them. You and your descendants can make heart-deep use of the first person plural—as in nous sommes français. You will know, so the promise runs, exactly who your people are.
Next to the French model, our way of integration, our whole culture in fact, looks weirdly loose and insubstantial. And indeed, the French view our hyphenated identities—speaking about Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans—as simultaneously wishy-washy multiculturalism and barely-concealed racism. Why, the French ask, do you need to list one’s country of origin? Haven’t you been able to make them, or allowed them to be, real unadulterated Americans? From across the Atlantic, we look like a nation that fundamentally doesn’t know who we are, and so allows petty things like melanin to keep us from sharing in a robust national fraternité. The point about racism is misconceived, I think, but the point about looseness obviously has some substance.
Surveying the fat Virginia-to-California landmass that comprehends everglades, deserts, cornfields, toothy coastlines and grasping metropolises, cattle ranchers and ballet dancers, Big Macs and caviar, it is indeed hard to see how all of this is in any substantial sense one thing. In a high-profile Chrysler commercial which debuted at the 2013 Super Bowl, Bob Dylan, our chief poet-singer, asked “Is there anything more American than America?” over a montage of little league games, horses, American flags, and classic Hollywood stills. Well Jesus, Bob. I suppose not, when you put it that way. The Dylan line is vapid, but one sympathizes. It is hard to say what all of this is, apart from the proper, unhelpful noun America.
It is perhaps easier to say what America isn’t, and to love her for that. Recent immigrants will tell you that things are easier here: less regulation, more opportunity, more efficient bureaucracy, less snobbery. And this is all true. While class distinctions are pretty much as real here as anywhere in the “old world”—a high school dropout would have a hard time making friends on a Beacon Hill roof deck—they are also more porous than elsewhere. All a poor Irish kid needs to do is get himself admitted to Boston College or Harvard or Boston University and learn to pronounce his R’s, and he’s welcome to don a pair of boat shoes and clamber up onto the roof. And that’s not nothing. The hungry and ostracized have a hell of a better shot escaping their station here than they do in Venezuela, Russia, or even France. This is America at its best: wide open and hospitable, playing host to transplants from abroad. This is our particular national genius.
Old world wine is the product of vines that have been carefully cultivated since long before our country existed. But new world viniculture has blossomed, in the past few decades, to the point that California wines can now be placed with pride next to the best wines from France and Spain. How did this happen, and so quickly? In good American style: we imported those age-old European vines—literally packed them in crates and shipped them over—and let a few years of American sunlight and craftsmanship add a new world accent. The French public was shocked and appalled when a suite of California wines defeated a suite of French competitors in a blind-tasted international wine competition, first when the wines were young in 1976, and then again 30 years later when they’d reached maturity.
Jazz, our greatest cultural creation, is analogous: it sprang mostly from the influx—the horrifying, bloody influx—of African people and culture. In the thick of their American misery, African Americans borrowed the technique and theory of European classical music, via the Paris-trained virtuosity of half-black “Creole” musicians, and fused it with West-African soul-wail of the blues. Here in America, this grafted-together plant found the ferment it needed to grow into a rich tradition that can, like American wine, stand eye-to-eye with its long-cultivated European forbears. We have nothing here but acres of soil, and imported, cross-fertilized crops. America is sunlight, air, space to grow—and little else.
And this is why America is difficult to love. One could as easily fall in love with density or porosity or solidity or liquidity, if one were systematically deprived of them. But no one should stay so enamored; there’s something strange and obsessive about loving an abstraction. Today I woke up, ate some eggs, biked five miles, worked eight hours, listened to some music, dropped an old college friend at the train station, etc., and in all of this I was unmolested by the government. I was free, and I’m glad I was—but was I filled with ardent love at the space, the lack of outside interference? I wasn’t. And who would be?
The picture I’ve painted so far is perhaps troubling, because there is something deeply admirable about sincere patriotism. It’s one of several potentially good kinds of tribalism, those webs of interpersonal attachment that allow us to speak with conviction in the first person plural and thus transcend our self-absorption. Healthy patriotism is a gut-level appreciation of the people, things, places, languages, literatures, and histories that help make human life good. Acts of patriotic self-sacrifice rightly inspire awe and reverence. Notwithstanding the particular degradations of modern warfare, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.
These sorts of attachments are worth celebrating and promoting, because they are practically necessary—no tribe would survive long if no one were willing to defend it—and because they are both morally beautiful and psychologically necessary for creatures like us. A life-landscape where “us” and “them” mean nothing, a clean-washed cosmopolitanism with no particular loyalties or loves, is simply not a human way of being.
But the idea that the state should be the principal locus for one’s tribal loyalties is preciously young, no older than the Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 gave political pride of place to a new structure called the nation-state, to the exclusion of confederations, city-states, religiously-motivated alliances, empires, etc. These free-standing, territorially sovereign political entities were meant to provide peace and stability to Europe on the heels of the Thirty Years’ War, in which the continent had been ravaged by the vicissitudes of fractious, overlapping tribal loyalties, especially those correlated to religion and empire.
The state, in this new system, was meant to wrap like an exoskeleton around the tender flesh of a nation: people who shared a common ethnicity, language, history, and culture. National loyalty was not expected to be directed toward a governmental structure or system, but rather toward those richer things people shared as their national birthright. Political tools were meant to flow from, and also to safeguard, the more important cultural patrimony of a people. Because who, after all, could feel genuine human loyalty to a system of political procedures, however wisely designed?
To judge from contemporary America, it would appear that quite a lot of people feel such a loyalty. See, for example, the incredible reverence accorded the Constitution: treated in many ways like a divinely-inspired religious text, physically enshrined in the capital, protected by an extremely elaborate security system, and subjected to a tradition of parsing and contestation that rivals Hebrew midrash. Every society has a myth of origins: they are a necessary part of a people’s self-understanding. Ours just happens to revolve around a governmental rulebook.
The rules and regulations of the constitution are cherished in large part as expressions of the deepest American values: the sorts of things that must be embraced if one is to become truly American. If you were to ask the average American to sum up these values in a word or two, the word “freedom” would be first in line. The most assertive, high-profile mode of expressing American patriotism—apart from plastering stars and stripes over pickup trucks and bikini tops—is the kind of freedom-focused sentimentality one hears in pop folk and country songs by people like John Mellencamp and Toby Keith.
From a certain angle, the emotional fetishization of freedom is analogous to the 20th-century Italian ideology of Futurism, which worshipped at the altar of force. The Futurists’ written hysterics fed the rise of fascism, because what is force? What is it used for? When is it good or wicked? The futurists abjured these questions in their adolescent fever: mere force was simply good. Theirs is rightly now seen as a dangerous ideology. The fact that patriotic freedom-lovers are not similarly dangerous does not result from the superiority of their ideology: the mere love of undifferentiated, abstract freedom is every bit as immature and suspect as the love of force. Because what is freedom? What is it used for? When is it good or wicked?
But red state freedom lovers aren’t dangerous because in the majority of cases, their ideology doesn’t match their reality. They aren’t actually advocates of mere, simple freedom. They aren’t even, with their announcements of patriotism, really partisans of America writ large. Instead, what they love and rally around is a much smaller identity, one correlated with specific places, traditions, and religious observances. They are, with a thousand small variations, white, Protestant, populist romanticizers of small-town life and hard-scrabble individualism. They hunt, pray, treasure hearth and home. Their culture has its icons, dogmas, myths, and rituals.
This, I would suggest, is part of the reason for the unpatriotism on the roof deck that Fourth of July. The dominant tradition of “American” patriotism is not actually expressive of America in toto, but rather of some very specific parts of America. John Mellencamp and Toby Keith do not describe my America. And would their songs resonate in an Upper East Side penthouse? A San Francisco gay bar? A black church in Chicago? Very likely not. Would Keith and Mellencamp recognize these environs as authentically American? If so, theirs would be a heroic act of imaginative abstraction, because these places, and the people who inhabit them and the virtues they people possess, look nothing like the America their songs picture.
At their best, the home cultures of Mellencamp and Keith—call them “the heartland”, “the south,” “flyover country” or whatever—are warm and rich and beautiful. Compared with the people of Peoria or Oklahoma City, Bostonians have a weakness for the vices of cynicism, coldness, and individualism. The virtues of Southern hospitality and Midwestern humility are virtues indeed. There’s a lot we could learn from the best practitioners of various flyover cultures.
This is faint praise, of course, and perhaps a little forced, but that’s fine—it’s not for me to eulogize cultures I know so poorly. Faulkner should tell us about Mississippi, Wendell Berry should write about Kentucky, Garrison Keillor about Minnesota. I’m only too happy to say a few words about Boston, in all its stiff, self-impressed splendor—because the uptight, over-educated, Europe-imitating, gun-averse, NPR-loving, SUV-scorning, cigarette-banning busybodies of Boston are my people, and I love the imperfect culture we share. Yeah, WBUR (Boston’s main NPR station) is stridently—sometimes obliviously—biased, but so are a number of my dearest family members. And really, do you enjoy being smothered by the artificial affection of people you’ve just met? No, you don’t. No one likes strangers; Bostonians are just real enough to let their natural stranger-scowl show.
Yet despite our many faults, we Bostonians are right to love our home culture. Some of our values might play poorly in Nashville or Dallas, but they add up to a culture as American as any imagined by Toby Keith.
I believe we should shamelessly embrace our cultural balkanization, or to put it more gently, our cultural federalism. It is nowhere written that a person ought to feel equally at home in every nook and cranny of the state she calls home. If there is a deep sense of patriotism available to us Americans, it will have to be based in local soil.
Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman and philosophical father of modern conservatism, defended a sort of micro-patriotism by arguing that loyalty to our “little platoons”—things like family, region, religion, class—is in fact the “germ” of wider public affections, which ought gradually to grow to embrace our entire nation, and then all of mankind. According to Burke, these smaller loyalties come relatively easily. Love for things like nation and humanity do not. They must be cultivated over time.
Maybe he’s right, and local patriotisms are defensible chiefly as rungs on the ladder of patriotic ascent. I suspect they’re defensible in their own right, but either way, I’d add that the thinness of American identity means becoming a nation-level patriot here is not so different from learning to love all of humanity: a herculean task, a life’s work, while surely one worth pursuing. If we follow Burke, we have our climbing orders, and they are steep.
But I, for one, am weak, selfish, and smug, so I’ll start my climb low: standing on the same roof deck this Fourth of July, pretending to like fireworks, and trying my best to despise the Beacon Hill bro’s a little less than I did last year.
Ian Marcus Corbin is an Art Consultant at Axelle Galerie in Boston, and a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College.