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To Be Ashamed Of One’s Country

Last week I waited on a train platform in an Amsterdam suburb with a Dutch friend, with whom I planned to spend the day in the city. We spoke English, which attracted the attention of a short, brown-skinned older man dressed neatly but modestly, in clothes that looked like they’ve been in use since the 1980s.

“You speak English. Is this train going to the city?” he asked tentatively. Yes, we said. He kept talking. Beneath his bristly grey mustache were two rows of nicotine-stained teeth the color of an oak armoire.

“Where are you from?” my Dutch friend asked. A wave of anxiety passed over the little man’s face, and he smiled nervously, and began to stammer.

“Iran,” he finally said. “I come from Iran. I am ashamed.”

You know how certain dogs, when they encounter you, roll over and whimper and show you their bellies, to indicate submission? That’s more or less what this old man did to us two men of the West. He said that his government is full of bad men who do terrible things, and it makes him ashamed.

“All the best minds, all the best people, they went to the West,” he said. On and on he went like that. It put my friend and me in an awkward position.

“I think you have a great country,” my friend said to him. “Persian culture is very old. The people of Iran aren’t the same as the government. This government won’t last forever.”

The old man kept talking. He said that the upcoming elections in Iran don’t matter, that it is a religious dictatorship. No one is free. On and on like that. He struck me as a lonely man, a frustrated man, a man deep in despair.

He explained that he was in Europe visiting family members who had immigrated ages ago, and would be returning soon. When I told him I was American, he said back in the 1970s, he had studied in the US, and loved it. He was so friendly, and childlike in his eagerness to make an emotional connection with us. In fact, my pal and I had to give him a bit of the slip at Centraal Station, or we would have had to spend our only day together showing the eager Iranian traveler around.

I was thinking about him just this morning, though, and what a terrible thing it is to be ashamed of one’s country. Back in the 1980s, I read P.J. O’Rourke’s great Harper’s essay “Ship Of Fools,” about his miserable time on a Peace Cruise through the USSR with Nation magazine subscribers. Here he speaks of one of the American leftists in his group:

Nick Smarm began to speak. It was the standard fare. He laid the greater part of the blame for a potential international nuke duke-out on the American doorstep. What he was saying wasn’t wrong, at least not in the factual citations he made. But suddenly and quite against my will I was angry. To stand in front of strangers and run your country, my country, down — I didn’t care if what Nick said was generally true, I didn’t care if what he said was wholly, specifically, and exactly true in every detail. I haven’t been that mad in years. I had to leave, go below. I was ashamed of the man. And it occurred to me that I would have been ashamed if he were Russian and we were on the Mississippi. That big [Russian] fellow with the medals down his suit coat, my ally, he wouldn’t have done such a thing on the Delta Queen.

The sad Iranian man didn’t make me angry, not in the least. I happen to agree with everything he said about his government, and sympathized with him. Still, to stand in a foreign country, talking to strangers on a train platform, and to confess straight up that you are ashamed of your country — it was such a demeaning thing that it made both my Dutch friend and me squirm. You know? I understand exactly what O’Rourke felt.

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26 Comments To "To Be Ashamed Of One’s Country"

#1 Comment By Franklin Evans On June 9, 2013 @ 10:05 am

The Iranian gentleman is a true patriot of his country. The difference I would emphasize, Rod, is that for US (I won’t speak to other countries here) patriots we don’t have to leave the country to express shame over the decisions and behaviors of our government. Our core ethic is dissent, defined by our freedoms of speech and assembly, and protected by our unrestricted franchise.

That is why, btw, you will see me express contempt for my fellow eligible voters much more than for our government. It starts with hoi polloi. It says so right there at the top of our founding documents. People who assert that their votes don’t count are directly complicit in the government we have. I give them no tolerance, and rare respect is reserved for those few who have rationally decided to not vote.

#2 Comment By Thinking Americanist On June 9, 2013 @ 10:18 am

How Sad. 🙁

I wonder how many Americans feel the same way right now?

#3 Comment By Don Quijote On June 9, 2013 @ 10:32 am

So basically O’Rourke got pissed off because someone pointed that his fantasy didn’t match reality… How conservative!

Let’s get real here, on the grand scale of Governments where the Scandinavian countries are a 1 (about as good as it gets) and Stalin’s USSR in the 30’s is a 9.5 (It can always be worse), Iran’s government is someplace between a 5 and a 7, it’s far from the worst government on the planet, it’s hasn’t committed genocide nor invaded it’s neighbors nor caused the death of Millions through Illegal Wars and Sanctions. It’s far better than the Saudi Government or many of the other Dictatorship that we have supported over the years…

If we stopped waging our little proxy war against the Iranians, the Mullah’s would probably fall in a few years and we would go back to screwing them over and they would remember why they hated us to start with…

#4 Comment By elizabeth On June 9, 2013 @ 11:54 am

Young citizens of the USA who traveled in Europe during the 60s and 70s felt ashamed about American involvement in the travesty that was the Vietnam war. Canadians wore maple leaf pins so as to indicate that they were Not-USA, and a number of USA citizens took to doing the same thing, to avoid having uncomfortable conversations- after having had too many of them.

And no, Don Q, the Iranian gov’t has not done what ours has done in the past decade. But they have plenty to be ashamed of. In the early days of the revolution they marched idealistic teenage boys out to the front lines to fight Saddam Hussein. Armed with sticks. We had an Iranian dentist who’d been involved in that at age 14. When depression set in among the boys, the mullahs provided hookahs and hashish for comfort. His parents got him out of the country for a visit with his sister, before the kid could be “martyred.” Young Mehrdad’s desire to live was rekindled within a couple of weeks, and he stayed in the West.

The hangings and beatings based on perceived crimes such as “desiring one another” prior to marriage, and being gay – these are nothing for Iranians to be proud of.

Does a government get points for only being slightly murderous?

#5 Comment By EngineerScotty On June 9, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

It is useful to distinguish between “shame”–a feeeling of contrition, regret, and/or sorrow for something that you, or someone/thing you care about, has done wrong; from “contempt”–hostile feelings towards some other, unaccompanied by any such sorrow whatsoever. The Peace Corps volunteer may have been expressing contempt–a common trait in the postmodern left of the 1980s (the fact that such feelings were common among liberals back then was a good sign of the malaise of the left; modern conservatives should take heed of this). Or she have been feeling true shame, and lacked the maturity to express it better–instead lashing out. College kids are like that; they often know not what they do or say. True shame is often an act of love.

It is also important to distinguish between shame the noun, and shame the verb. Shame the verb simply means “to humiliate”. When we talk about shaming someone, we mean public censure and scorn, or worse. As a noun, “shame” doesn’t always involve humiliation–shame may be personal or public, may result in a feeling of humiliation or–ironically–a feeling of pride (though too much pride can cross over into “contempt” if one is not careful). The defining feature of shame-the-noun is regret.

As a post-postmodern liberal (I don’t care much for flag-burners, either–the equivalent on the right would be Fred Phelps and his ilk), I love my country very much, but there are many things about it of which I am ashamed. I’m ashamed of our continuing meddling in the Middle East and elsewhere. I’m ashamed of the shabby way in which we, the richest land on Earth (though China is closing in), fail to take care of our own in many cases. I’m ashamed of much of the excessive national-security apparatus. Some of you may be ashamed of other things I’ve not listed–abortion, environmental despoilation, inadequate public morality, inadequate religious faith (in general, or adherence to a particular doctrine), or excessive meddling in the economy. Not all of my shame is related to the United States–some of it is personal, some of it is local, and some of it is global–I often despair for humanity.

And shame–the noun, again–is a good thing. If you never experience it, then either you and your associations are all perfect (unlikely), or else you’re a sociopath (plenty of those around).

#6 Comment By Thomas Andrews On June 9, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

I have never been ashamed of my country.
I am frequently ashamed of my fellow Christians, who commit acts of aggression and torture in the name of my Lord.
Countries come and go. Some are better, some are worse.
How we Christians manifest our faith reflects on eternal truths.

#7 Comment By Aaron Gross On June 9, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

Sounds like a pathetic man. I don’t care how bad your government is, you don’t have to act so creepy about it.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 9, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

The line between good and evil doesn’t run between peoples and nations, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, but divides every human heart.

My own heart is rended in two now, deeply wounded by the revelation of how fully the bottom half has gained ascendancy over our own nation.

As Bob Dylan had it in Slow Train Coming, we’ve got “gangsters in power, lawbreakers making rules.”

We can’t see the log in our own eye.

#9 Comment By Sam M On June 9, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

I recall lots of people cheering when poor uncle Ruslan admitted being ashamed of the marathon bombers.

There is a place for it. Humility and shame seem closely related.

#10 Comment By CharleyCarp On June 9, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

Rod, let me put this into a different sense.

It’s entirely possible that one of your kids could eventually engage in conduct that you find shameful. Suppose, for example, you were to learn that a child had joined in a group that was bullying another kid on a class trip. You’d be ashamed of him, for him, and of yourself for somehow not getting across that this kind of thing, even if approved by other kids and tolerated by the authorities, was definitely beyond the Pale. Neither the shame nor the guilt would mean you loved your child any less — in fact, it’s because you love him that you would feel it so strongly. And how would you react to the feelings this would raise in you? I’ll venture a guess based on reading your work for a while: Renewed determination to make sure your child understood the harm he was causing, and quite likely you’d insist that a personal apology be given. You might well even apologize yourself, if you found yourself in a social situation with the bullied kid’s parents. You’d be proud to learn that on a later class trip he’d stood up to the bullies, and gotten them to leave the weakling kid alone.

There are parents — and you’ve surely met some of them — who would excuse joining in the bullying either because the other kids were doing it, or because they feel it more important to back up their own kid, right or wrong, than to take the side of the weakling who got bullied. Those parents love their kids too, even if you or I might think they are doing them no favors in the values they are instilling.

#11 Comment By TZ On June 9, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

I have a low opinion of Nationalism. Yes, it is one of cohesive factors that stitches a nation and a society together, however it really does get intertwined with pride and hubris. I would guess that nationalism has caused far more harm to the human race than good.

Most certainly I expect to be chastised here for saying the following.
If we here in the USA would look at our history with our minds rather than our hearts, and embrace the many hideous things that this nation has committed, we would be a far better society because we would then be more conscious of, and less likely to be committing further injustice, suffering, and damaging decisions for ourselves and other across the planet. I am proud of the USA for many things, however at the same time I am ashamed at the same time for other things.
Mr Solzhenitsyn is quoted as pointing out that the line between good and evil passes through every person. If a person, or a nation is ignoring/denying/blind to their evil side, then that evil is given license and will manifest itself.

#12 Comment By AHirsch On June 9, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

I think the ideas presented here…both by Dreher and the commenters, capture the paradox of being a Liberal Jew and the State of Israel: proud of its accomplishment from a 3rd world county in poverty to one of prosperity and good works, but being aware of religious intolerance of some parts of the state to the religious values of most of America’s Jews, the state’s treatment of Bedoins in Negev and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

A thoughtful article about how to hold such contradictions to their values would be interesting: How do Lutherans and Catholics carry their history of Anti-Semitism? Southerners and their history of Slavery? How do Germans, and Japanese carry their history? Americans and their treatment of Native Americans? America’s and the Viet Nam war.

Is this a history of or institutions/governments we want to embrace and teach–0r forget/justify? Exploration of idea in Nietzsche’s “Uses of History” would certainly come into play in a robust discussion: do we want a nihilistic critical history or an inspiring heroic history to sustain a culture and society?

We have had much discourse on how victims deal and “heal” from their history/trauma.

How should victors deal with their actions?

#13 Comment By arthropod On June 9, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

I’ll tell you, I just got back from spending some time in Vietnam after doing a lot of reading on the war, and I know exactly how that old man felt. I didn’t volunteer the information, but if someone had asked I would have told them.

#14 Comment By JonF On June 9, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

Re: It’s far better than the Saudi Government or many of the other Dictatorship that we have supported over the years

It’s getting deep in here.
I’m not defending Saudi Arabia, which is its own level of bad, nor the likes of Somoza, the Shah, Marcos and other assorted thugocrats, but if you can’t see that Iran’s theocrats are every bit as bad as that crowd, then can I have some of what you are smoking?

#15 Comment By BasilNova On June 9, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

The O’Rourke attitude sickens me. Pride and power. I’m sick of it.

#16 Comment By Don Quijote On June 9, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

I’m not defending Saudi Arabia, which is its own level of bad, nor the likes of Somoza, the Shah, Marcos and other assorted thugocrats, but if you can’t see that Iran’s theocrats are every bit as bad as that crowd, then can I have some of what you are smoking?

Considering that Iran is an “Enemy of the State”, and that we get our “fifteen minutes of hate” on a weekly basis, I take anything that the US Mass Media has to say about Iran with a bucket of salt.

Having said that, if Iran had committed any large scale human right violation, it would be blasted across the Media landscape 24/7 non stop…

On the other hand [1] barely got mentioned in our Mass Media.

Ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and war crimes stemming from massacres of indigenous people during Guatemala’s long civil war.

Rios Montt thus became the first former Latin American dictator convicted of trying to exterminate an entire group of people, in a brief but particularly gruesome stretch of a war that started in 1960, dragged on for 36 years and left around 200,000 people dead or missing.

Realistically, is the Iranian Government any more repressive than that of China?

#17 Comment By contrarian On June 9, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

Yeah, there’s something about going overseas that gets me defensive of our good ‘ol US of A than I’d ever be back at home. I distinctly remember, about 10 years ago now, defending Bush in an argument with this silly Irish girl while I was in Paris. For some reason, I felt obliged to defend my country’s current regime in a strange land, and against accusations of thuggery and anti-science ignorance, etc. I don’t know what possessed me, but there was something about hearing a bunch of damn fur’nurs say that stuff that made me feel obliged to come to my then president’s defense. Like he was in my family or something.

In a related thought, apart from our silly governments, it’s been my experience that there’s something deeply unfair about the ‘ugly American’ meme. I’ve always found my fellow countrymen to be pleasant and polite when I run across them overseas.

Reminds me of of this conversation I had in London with this amicable Brit. He said that a lot of Americans he talked to had to make it clear how much their country was terrible and unsophisticated, and how awful its yokelish and fat citizens were, etc., but that, [using his best American accent], “…don’t worry, I’M not like that!” The Brit said, while laughing, that he worries that there are a lot of Americans who think of themselves as the lone sophisticated savant traveling abroad. 🙂

#18 Comment By He who used to be Bob On June 9, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

With Larison, I don’t think this was strange/pathetic at all (and I think Rod’s original story showed sympathy at the man’s plight rather than running him down), but partly a defense mechanism, partly complaining about his rulers, and partly what people have been doing down the ages from Abraham – moving shop and changing allegiance. I, for instance, would never self-identify as belonging to the country where I was born and grew up, but rather as an Australian. However, the fact that we are ruled and will be ruled by incompetents makes no difference to this basic identification. This is the other side of the localism/universalism debate, and therefore a discussion worth having.

Something in this reminds me of The City of God. Effectively the man is saying something like “I might have been born there, but I really belong somewhere else,” which surely Christians (not to mention Americans and Australians) ought to sympathise with.

#19 Comment By Noah172 On June 9, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

Self-flagellation of oneself and one’s kind is unbecoming. This elderly Iranian is like those white Americans who can’t stop apologizing for slavery and racism and all that, and who are ashamed of themselves for being white (for instance, a few months back, there was an upper-class 50-ish white lady in Memphis, Tennessee who was photographed kneeling in front of a black man, hands clasped under her face, begging forgiveness for the sins of the past, I think in front of a church; a revolting, and even a little sexually suggestive, scene). Or he is like those white gentiles, in the US and Europe, who cannot get over their misplaced guilt over the Holocaust (misplaced because these are never people who actually participated in the atrocities).

I don’t know about this Iranian, but among First World whites this sort of shame for one’s own is usually really just a cover for self-righteous, ostentatious displays of one’s alleged moral superiority: “I am not like those evil people of my kind/country. I am one of the good ones.” These displays are also a tactic for manipulating the emotions of others in political debates, employed heavily by the globalist, antinationalist elites of left and right.

Guilt is a powerful and useful tool in the public square, particularly (exclusively?) within the white, historically Western Christian (Catholic/Protestant) societies. Non-whites rarely feel guilty about anything in their peoples’ pasts: see, for instance, the Japanese, or the Turks, or the Amerindian descendants of the Aztecs or Caribs. Slavic Eastern Christians do not either, AFAICT: see the Russians. Muslims don’t either, with the curious exception of the literal self-flagellation in which the Shiites engage as annual penance for their ancestors’ supposed failure to protect the Rashid Caliph Ali; note, however, that the Shiites are not apologizing to anyone living.

#20 Comment By JonF On June 9, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

REe: I take anything that the US Mass Media has to say about Iran with a bucket of salt.

So those gay kids they hanged– and the assorted “apostates” they have prosecuted and in some cases executed– none of that really happened, right?
Why the simple-minded black-or-white dichotomy? One need not approve one whit of US foreign policy in the Middle East (I mostly do not), and still not whitewash the Iranian theocracy. The mullahs running that show are throw-backs to the Dark Ages, and they’d be far more at home with Torquemada and Innocent III than with Lincoln and Gandhi.

#21 Comment By Noah172 On June 9, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

**correction to my 5:55 comment**

“their ancestors’ supposed failure to protect Hussein ibn Ali, son of the Rashid Caliph Ali”

#22 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 9, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

“… there’s something deeply unfair about the ‘ugly American’ meme. I’ve always found my fellow countrymen to be pleasant and polite when I run across them overseas.”

I admit to feeling quite resentful when in a “foreign” country and being subjected to ill-tempered harangues about America – even when they are significantly true. Perhaps it’s because those doing it actually aren’t motivated by a love of the truth, but their own form of nationalistic jingoism, in which they see only their own good, instead of their own hypocrisy.

But what does this feeling prove? Only that all of us are subject to the same emotions that course through every human heart, for good or ill, and that there is no “exceptionalism” of humanity conferred upon any people – not even “us” – only what each of us chooses to do or to defend – or resist.

However – there was something truly beyond ugly when an enormously powerful government official appeared before Congress and egregiously and blatantly lied and misled not only Congress, but the American people. Not only that, but I doubt that it would be a polite or pleasant experience to run across either him or anyone he wields, either here or overseas. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience for Senator Wyden, about to be cut off by Senator Feinstein as he tortuously tried to get straight answers to what he already knew, but was prohibited from telling the public himself.

#23 Comment By Wesley On June 10, 2013 @ 4:06 am

“The sad Iranian man didn’t make me angry, not in the least. I happen to agree with everything he said about his government, and sympathized with him. Still, to stand in a foreign country, talking to strangers on a train platform, and to confess straight up that you are ashamed of your country — it was such a demeaning thing that it made both my Dutch friend and me squirm. You know? I understand exactly what O’Rourke felt.”

Well, what would you rather him do? Would you rather him to have said that he just loves, loves the Iranian government, Ayatollah Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards? And yeah, you may not agree with anything that he’s saying, but yeah at least he’s being “patriotic.” But really, the guy may have known from your accent that you’re American and most Iranians know that most Americans don’t like the Iranian government at all. “Good” Iranians like this guy know that America is the leading country in opposition to the Iranian government and that is why the Iranian people as a whole tend to be quite pro-American. The same thing goes with your Dutch friend. Now Europeans do tend to be more dovish on average than Americans, but most Europeans still hate the Iranian government and everything that it stands for.

The guy knows that he can’t usually talk that freely about his country’s government while at home in Iran; even when conversing with his family and close friends. But while he’s in a liberal democratic Western country, he knows that he has the freedom to say pretty much anything and he’ll also be assured to have a sympathetic audience. You say that it was a “demeaning” thing for this guy to tell a couple of strangers that he is ashamed of his country. Well I wonder what he said to his Dutch relatives? I’m sure it wasn’t that he just loves, loves the Iranian government. I’m sure that he went into even greater detail with them than he went with you and your friend. What if this was somebody who had lived in Nazi Germany instead of the Islamic Republic of Iran? And after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, he or she said that they hated their country’s old government. Nobody would bat an eyelash, because the Nazis have become the embodiment of evil.

Obama should read this blog post and maybe he’ll change his mind about supporting the Iranian opposition movement and even about supporting the moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting Iran’s close ally Assad. The Iranian and Syrian peoples are both desperate for the West, especially the United States, to help them in their struggles against the tyrannical governments that rule them and even massacre them.

#24 Comment By k On June 10, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

To me this seems to more illustrate the personality quirks and personal issues of one man, but I also think true patriots are not the holders on and the apologists but those who draw the line, honestly speak out, and want to help rebuild something new out of the mess when a country has gone to heck, as every one of them does sooner or later. How many worthy principles we now cherish were once things fought against by those who were being the most patriotic and loyal to what existed before? I am so thankful for the times in history when people value things of greater meaning than their own national borders, race, religion, etc.

#25 Comment By Mike On June 10, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

We have a large Persian émigré community here in CA and none of them want to be known as Iranians- they’re Persians not to be confused with supporters of the revolution. As awful as the Shah’s regime could be it was still better than what the ayatollahs have wrought. I understand this gentleman’s sentiments perfectly; one can love ones country deeply but be deeply ashamed of its deficiencies. Perhaps you caught him at a contemplative moment and all his feelings of living under a despotic regime rushed forward- you undoubtedly did him a good turn by listening to his woes and being understanding.

#26 Comment By Julien Peter Benney On June 14, 2013 @ 7:54 am

There are times when being ashamed of one’s own country is an entirely reasonable response. Over a decade and a half of research, Australia’s environmental policy is one such case. Being the most fragile and sensitive country in the world, with the lowest rainfall and runoff ratios combined with the oldest and poorest soils in the world, Australia needs to be a world leader in low-energy technologies because these match the adaptations of its native fauna.

Yet, in the real world Australia is atrociously laggardly in this respect – to the point that suing Australia for its greenhouse emissions is a logical and just reaction for the Enriched World.

On the other hand, I know very well that living in the greatly more fertile Enriched World has many drawbacks: the pace of life is extremely fast and nervous, housing and most essential items tend to be beyond what I can afford in the long term. The Tropical World, for its part, is still worse.