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Patriotism Begins With Localism

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.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "Patriotism Begins With Localism"

#1 Comment By Apolitical On July 3, 2015 @ 9:50 am

Dulce et decorum est … to stop believing the “old lie” that appears so promiscuously on Union and Confederate war memorials. If men on all sides always die for country, who puts them up to it?

#2 Comment By JonF On July 3, 2015 @ 10:44 am

Re: 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.

At yet France is a glued-together-at-the-seams country too. The whole South of France once spoke a different language, in which the troubadours sang, and which still survives in the local dialects of the inhabitants. Burgundy was once a sovereign and very wealthy duchy whose duke controlled almost the entire Rhineland all the way to the Netherlands. Brittany too was its own nation, albeit torn between France and England. And the English ruled Gascony for 300 years, and were preferred as rulers to the Valois kings so that the Gascons promptly revolted when the French took the land back. The Pope ruled (and for a time dwelt) in Avignon. The Provence was a county of the Holy Roman Empire. Louis XIV knit these disparate lands together by corralling their nobility into velvet captivity at Versailles. The Revolutionaries added an ideology and a national anthem (and spilled the blood of the dissenters) and Napoleon gave the mix a mythology of glory. But the seams are still there under the surface. And indeed, you can find similar fissures in many other European countries too.

#3 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On July 3, 2015 @ 10:47 am

The concept of a country linked together by a common set of laws was never intended by our revered Founders to be anything more or less than an experiment. An experiment that had never been tried before. Arguably the United States Constitution that was drafted during the height of the Enlightenment and, together with the America’s so-called “birth certificate”, Jefferson’s Declaration, may be considered that era’s greatest accomplishment…a little Locke here, a dash of Montesquieu there and…Voila! In that respect “United” States are in no way “united”, in the strictest sense of the word, except through the Constitution. And I suspect that is about all the Founders could have hoped for. From the beginning America was– and remains– a culturally Balkanized and, now more than ever, polyglot landmass more reminiscent of pre-World War One Austria-Hungary.

The late Speaker of The House, Tip O’Neill—a Boston Irishman I might add–is reputed to have once said “All politics is local.” He got it half right. What he should have said is “All LOYALTY is local”. I am also reminded of a line in The Godfather when Sonny Cordleone says to his brother Fredo “Your country ain’t your blood”.

Patriotism indeed begins on the local level, whether geographical, cultural, familial–or some combination thereof. The author is spot-on.

#4 Comment By Gregory On July 3, 2015 @ 8:28 pm

That line in Wilfred Owen’s poem is supposed to be ironic…

#5 Comment By TB On July 3, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

“Patriotism Begins With Localism”

I think the last refuge of the scoundrel begins with tribalism fear which, is the cultural anthropologist’s way of saying “localism”.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 3, 2015 @ 11:57 pm

Well written, but full of unexamined assumptions that are more comforting myth than truth.

Like the girls who didn’t stay thin, exactly.

“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.”

Yet voting’s never meant less as policies are completely untethered from public opinion, except as it can be manufactured through what crony capitalism calls PR, more honest oligarchies call propaganda. And participation in voting is a minority activity, meaning real democracy’s already given the process a vote of no confidence. We can express ourselves freely, if we’re not among those with proscribed views, but those in charge aren’t interested in what we have to say. The main corporate media, the gateways through which most people get their filtered news, prints all the news that fits their status quo interests. No genuinely alternative political opinions that challenge the duopoly establishment are able to be considered, though the corporate donorist class has no solutions to the ill which ail us, except for mendacity. Certainly there have been an ungodly number of young men killed in our name, and an even more ungodly number of foreign civilians of all ages and sexes whom they have killed, also in our name. But truth be told, our name being invoked was our only connection to the purpose of the wars, which wasn’t for our interests at all; none of the foreign wars of choice have secured our liberties, only debased them – and violated those of others. Far from making us secure, our very democracy has been endangered by their unaccountable and unconstitutional means, perhaps fatally. Perhaps only the young now can be so deceived, without experience, with heavy student debt focusing their thoughts on more immediate personal concerns, with their docile, untenured instructors carrying their own debt loads, unwilling to intellectually challenge the status quo. What business will you be grateful to start? In the post-industrial economic desert of America that the donorist elites levelled to keep more of business’ rewards for themselves, it’s unlikely to be able to provide the stable, well-paying work that manufacturing used to.

I suggest getting another advisor and thesis.

Suggested topic:


#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 4, 2015 @ 12:19 am

At nearby Boston University, I recommend Professor Andrew Bacevich…

#8 Comment By Matthew Robare On July 4, 2015 @ 12:28 am

Boston has her virtues, too.

We might cold, cynical and individualistic, but we’re also funny, honest and creative.

I still remember my first day in the city. I was in the Macy’s in Downtown Crossing and, lost in thought, didn’t realize someone was asking for directions until he started swearing at me.

I’ve gotten the hang of it, and can now maledictate our infamous drivers with the best of them.

#9 Comment By JEinCA On July 4, 2015 @ 3:16 am

I think Pat Buchanan said it best. We’re no longer a nation in any traditional sense of the word. We are an economy. The best definition of a nation would be Michael Savage’s definition of borders, language and culture but more important than all of this would be religion. Unless a nation has a commonly shared faith it can never truly be one. The Russians know this and that is why the Kremlin has thrown its support behind the Russian Orthodox Church. The West used to know this and that is why Europe was up until this last century identifiably Christian civilization with the biggest differances largely arising from the Catholic-Protestant divide. For awhile America reflected Christian Europe but now we reflect Babylon and our elites are largely cynical atheists who look down on people of faith. Such a house could have never withstood a Great Depression let alone a Soviet style collapse.

#10 Comment By DobermanBoston On July 4, 2015 @ 6:16 am

The greatest Boston story ever happened on Beacon Hill. Two kids, one Black and one White, made a job for themselves by returning loonies to the local mental health center. Fifteen bucks a head. Like most neighborhoods, Beacon Hill was peacefully integrated in the 1970s. The pro-busing nihilists of course focused on the outlying neighborhoods of Roxbury and South Boston, and they made much trouble. That trouble happened largely because the social engineering mischief which destroyed Mattapan and the West End was still a recent memory.

In American Hardcore, the record label owner Curtis Casella posits that the DC straight edge scene got “a little eviler” when it arrived here. He was right.

The late Leonard Nimoy maintained that he stopped acting when asked to portray a thuggish, sadistic Mr. Spock in a parallel universe episode of “Star Trek”, and simply became himself.

My troubled, complicated home. Thank you.

#11 Comment By JonF On July 4, 2015 @ 8:25 am

Re: Unless a nation has a commonly shared faith it can never truly be one.

The US never qualified then. We had Puritans in New England, and Roger Williams’ proto-Baptists; Anglicans down South, joined by Presbyterians and then by the upstart churches of the Great Awakening. Pennsylvania hosted the Quakers plus some German Anabaptist sects (the latter yielded the Mennonites and Amish) and New York started out with some Dutch Calvinists, and in the 19th century generated the Mormons. All over there was sprinkling of Catholics and Jews, assorted free-thinkers and Deists. Oh, and Alaska was evangelized by the Russian Orthodox.

#12 Comment By JonF On July 4, 2015 @ 8:31 am

Re: The concept of a country linked together by a common set of laws was never intended by our revered Founders to be anything more or less than an experiment. An experiment that had never been tried before.

The Netherlands started out as a group of provinces with separate governments and histories (and one, Friesland, with its own language) who mainly had in common certain economic interests and rebellion against Spain. The Dutch Republic foreshadowed the American Republic. Of course there a “Dutch” national identity now, but at its inception there really wasn’t. There’s a similar story to be told about Switzerland.

#13 Comment By seans On July 4, 2015 @ 9:09 am

“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.”

You’re overthinking this. An abstraction? For an abstraction people seem to understand it pretty well judging by the number of flags flying and not just on the 4th of July. What you describe is the essence of what makes it work. A nation-state like France may well be tighter (although it has its regionalism too) but the U.S. is not France, not by long shot. It’s too big, too spread out and too diverse for it to be any one thing and that was true on July 4, 1776 as it is on July 4, 2015. This annoys a lot of people but this looseness allows for the cultural tension to play itself out, not explode as it has in plenty of other places around the world. Imagine a place were the flag of a rebellion which was defeated can still fly in places which supported the government. That’s the American contradiction in all its glorious nutshell and why it endures.

#14 Comment By Patrick Harris On July 4, 2015 @ 9:36 am

The “dulce et decorous est” line belongs to Horace, guys: Owen just borrowed it to make his anti-war point. Rest assured, the Roman poet was not being ironic.

#15 Comment By Sicarius On July 4, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

“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…” What sort of stultification is this? Has the writer ever spent more than a month in France, or any other developed country for that matter (e.g. England, Spain, Canada). His ‘observations’ in general are embarrassingly sophomoric–although they do indicate good old fashioned American chauvinism.

#16 Comment By Shane A. On July 5, 2015 @ 8:53 pm

Gregory: That’s not a line from a Wilfred Owen poem–not originally. It’s a line-turned-motto from Horace, so it’s not fair to criticize the author for not using it ironically.

#17 Comment By Winston On July 6, 2015 @ 3:04 am

Molested by Government. Umm who benefits most from govt:

Here is a summary of what can be supported with scientific (statistical) evidence about the influence of big money on big government:
Campaign contributions and lobbying influence the voting behavior of politicians.
Campaign contributions and lobbying have a positive effect on wealth for the shareholders of the companies that spend.
Businesses that pay lobbyists before committing fraud are 38% less likely to get caught; even when they get caught they are able to evade detection almost 4 months longer than those that do not pay for lobbying.
Firms with political connections are more likely to receive government bailouts in times of economic distress.

the average member of Congress who voted in favor of the $700 billion Bank Bailout received 51% more campaign money from Wall Street than those who voted no – Republicans and Democrats alike. The main finding in Dr. Thomas’ paper is that banks that paid lobbyists and made political campaign contributions were more likely to receive TARP money. To put a fine point on it, for every dollar spent lobbying in the 5 years before the bailout, banks averaged $535.71 in TARP bailout money! We knew the bank bailout was rigged, but that is a better rate of return than even Warren Buffett got for his contribution to the bailout of Goldman Sachs.

#18 Comment By brians On July 6, 2015 @ 7:03 am

Good article, but my America is better than yours.

#19 Comment By Bianca On July 6, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

American elite has become a single-dimensional, interest driven sect, and the rest — all the attempts of analysis of the American past and present — are virtual dimensions explaining, justifying, moralizing. And when such single-minded interest driven elite in thrall with power, causes misery and destruction world -wide with a persistence of an imbecile, not much is being questioned. Perhaps methods, not goals. Perhaps “mistakes are made” but we mean always good. I beg to disagree. Destruction of many countries is not accidental. And replacement of “dictators” that managed stable and even prospering societies are toppled in favor of criminals, religious fanatics, and lunatics of all stripes. We still do not find it unusual. After all, we are perennially good, and cannot possibly mean any harm. And as much as all the Bostonians on that roof know it, it does not bother them. After all, in their own single -dimensionality they love their life just as it is. But when chaos makers manage to disturb the fragile bonds that affect us all as a humanity, our charmed living may abruptly come to an end. In Europe, already hundreds of thousands of refugees are flooding their shores, and from there, make their way into countries rich or poor, causing havoc to smaller communities, and nightmare for well-mannered, rule based European bureaucracy. So, everybody thought that destroying once well ordered Iraq, Syria, Libya — was no problem? And that the chaos in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Mali, Nigeria, Congo, etc — are not the consequence of single-dimensional interventions into their social, environmental or economical habitat? That causing the revolutionary destruction of Ukraine, and bringing to power revived, ready for payback Nazi descendants? Or that destruction of once just culturally Balkanized country that managed its affairs pretty well prior to the messianic zeal of single-dimensional imbecility? But what do I know. We all do things for the best. They will — in spite of the deaths of millions from Indochina to Balkans, from Middle East to African continent — be in our interest as we do God’s work. Deciding who lives and who dies, reshaping all with this particular God given talent for shaping the physical and social environment to suit our purposes. And then, all that remains is create thousands upon thousands of virtual dimensions glorifying our munificence, our commitment to freedom, justice, free markets, human rights, and whatever other rights can be summoned as needed to turn all other leaders that are not obedient into dictators, here and there a new Hitler, or Greek “amateurs” elected by the stupid Greeks that refuse debt slavery. So we can celebrate our munificence with clean conscience. Any immigrant is welcome provided that does not see a thing past his or hers single-dimensional persona in pursuit of material happiness. They are to make sure that they dump conscience in their pursuit of happiness.

#20 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 6, 2015 @ 10:23 pm

The concept of a country linked together by a common set of laws was never intended by our revered Founders to be anything more or less than an experiment.

Yes, and it was an excellent idea, one that has truly stood the test of time. What do Irish, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Italian, French, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and other immigrants have in common as Americans, except a commitment to citizenship in a common constitutional framework that holds good no matter what your religion, ethnic branch of your religion, ancestral language, choice of cuisine, etc?

That’s what we celebrate… and I think gathering with local friends and neighbors to watch beautiful fireworks light up the sky is really cool.

#21 Comment By TB On July 7, 2015 @ 8:30 am

“The concept of a country linked together by a common set of laws was never intended by our revered Founders to be anything more or less than an experiment.”

It was intended to be a great deal more than an experiment. Those laws were meant to be the legal template to frame a moral vision of nationhood. The first moral tenet was the rejection of Old World scorn for the hoi-polloi in favor of its inherent, collective wisdom. It also acted as an implicit rejection of Christianity’s god awful Original Sin/Depraved Nature theological construct. The Constitution’s preamble laid it out like this…
We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

#22 Comment By Bangeer On July 7, 2015 @ 3:48 pm

Interesting post. In America, during the height of patriotism in the 1950s, we tried to emphasize our communality–love of place and love of having no place, love of family and religion and love of moving away from family and not be bound to religion. It is the openness of our culture to allow the maximum of human choice that made America lovable not just in our own country but elsewhere. Now that has changed and we are a country that features resentment and distrust. Others here have commented on having a common religion–bullsh*t! We don’t want a common religion but we do want and need values based on religious ideas–for me that means the more mystical and inclusive ideas of religion as appear in books like A. Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy or the Dalai Lama’s request that we not become Buddhist but rather practice our own native religion–it the case of mine, Christianity, there is a rich tradition of spirituality that is as good and wise as the Buddhist tradition as the Dalai Lama well knows.

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 7, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

“It also acted as an implicit rejection of Christianity’s god awful Original Sin/Depraved Nature theological construct.”

Where one get these bizarre ideas is quite peculiar.

It was no such thing. In fact, law essentially grants out the concept that man is incaoable of acing without a set of laws and is by nature unlawful — therefore needs law, rules, guides to follow.

Further, the country was designed to include that which you minus any support or analysis claims id rejected. And nearly all of colonial history indicates the complete opposite of your claim.

Our system confirms rather than denies an unlawful tendence human nature.

One does not need to believe in such ideas, but the Consititution does not indicate that the idea/concept is dismissed. It’s very existence affirms as much.

#24 Comment By carl On July 13, 2015 @ 9:36 pm

Mr. Corbin:

To put it in the most brutally simple way, except for the members of the black churches, the people on your roof and in your America don’t much volunteer to put themselves at risk of joining those dead men from wars past, present and to come. The flyover people and those Bostonians who won’t make it to your rooftop party do. Until those in (your) “my America” do, don’t go putting on airs.

#25 Comment By Cyril On July 4, 2016 @ 4:15 am

Unfortunately, what Mr. Corbin describes is a recipe for separatism. After all if all of your loyalties are to a certain region and not even a small goes to a nation at large spells a possibility for secession: if you are not held even by a semblance what stops some regions from saying “know what, we are sick and tired of so we are go it alone”? The only solid argument I can come up with is an economic one, but that case we’re talking not about a nation but about a “loveless marriage”, in which shared finances is all that keeping participants together. This is not necessarily a good guarantee historically speaking: Austrian empire collapsed, even though it might have been more profitable for Czechs, Slovacs and Hungarians to stay, but they decided to start from scratch. Also, people who nonchalantly talk about Balkanization should remember how real Balkanization went( spoiler: not good). So when your arguments boils down to “we all different and we don’t even like each other all that much but we are going to hang together because…well…reasons…” it might be a harbinger of a great crisis that lies ahead.

#26 Comment By Liam On July 4, 2016 @ 9:04 am

The flyover vs coastal elite meme is itself a creation of reverse snobbery – an old American tradition, but a form of snobbery nonetheless.

The state with the lowest rate of military enlistment is: North Dakota.

Maine has fairly high rate of enlistment.

#27 Comment By Will Harrington On July 4, 2016 @ 10:08 am

Jon F

You have a long list of different churches, every single one of which self identified as Christian. What was your point again?

#28 Comment By Ragnvaldr On July 4, 2016 @ 7:20 pm

Observing the ponderings of a Boston rooftop, is like dropping in on an alien planet. I wonder how my ancestors who landed in 1631 Boston would experience being transported to this current age of nothingness, nothing other than myths, a pair of boat shoes, a Brooks Brothers shirt and a can of something that shouldn’t even be dignified with the description of beer.

On the 4th, I think of Israel and Samuel spending an afternoon with the ladies of their church during the Revolutionary War. The church founded by our relative Roger Williams.

I think of my great grandmother whose father ended up being buried in a mass grave during the Civil War. Their own line having established not one but two churches here in the states.

Dane, yes, Norman,yes, Christian for periods, always form side,the ancestral ways are always present in our subconscious and DNA.

I do not celebrate the 4th of July, but I honor the memory of my families Angell Regiment of Rhode Island.

Fireworks, and the consumerist culture seem rather empty in comparison,essentiallyworth fighting to preserve or be proud of…we were Normans for gosh sakes and here amongst our kinsmen preserving our own interest of familiar bonds.

In that light, fireworks, a few watery beers and empty platitudes don’t mean much…

#29 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On June 8, 2018 @ 10:29 am

To put it in the most brutally simple way, except for the members of the black churches, the people on your roof and in your America don’t much volunteer to put themselves at risk of joining those dead men from wars past, present and to come.

IIRC, African Americans are slightly underrepresented among military deaths, not overrepresented. (I think they serve in the military in large numbers, but disproportionately in non combat roles, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen statistics on that).

#30 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On June 8, 2018 @ 10:33 am

Good article, Mr. Corbin. I’m from Boston too (grew up there for most of the first 21+ years of my life) and though I’ve lived overseas for a bit, and in the Midwest for the last 10 years, I have a deep attachment to the place. At this point I’m probably just about as attached to Michigan as a state as I am to Massachusetts, but in both cases I have a much stronger attachment than I do to America as a country.

Some countries are just too big and diverse to inspire much tribal loyalty. (For something like the same reason, if asked to describe my ethnicity, I always say “Tamil”, not “Indian”. India, like the US, is an empire rather than a nation).