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|July 3-9, 2008
Back to Letters
by Pamela White
I grew up watching fireworks at Folsom Stadium. Every Fourth of July, my family would make the short walk from our Martin Acres home to watch the display. I loved everything about it — the goofy community sing-along, the fireworks that lit the sky with glittering color, and the wafting clouds of smoke we walked through on the way home.
When my kids were old enough to appreciate fireworks, I wanted to share with them the spectacle that I had loved so much as a child. There was only one hitch. The America I had loved no longer existed.
It’s not that the United States had changed. Rather, my perception of it had changed. I’d spent three years overseas, where I’d learned things about my country I hadn’t known before. The land of the free wasn’t quite as free as I’d once believed, and, to judge by U.S. foreign policy, the brave had gone over to sheer arrogance.
In what was my first existential crisis, I struggled to reconcile the America I’d been raised to love with America as it truly was.
Like any person who believes they’ve been misled, I found myself enraged with my government and the people who empower it through ignorance and inaction. I came home determined to help remake the United States into the country it ought to be. I vowed not to stand for the flag, say the Pledge or sing the national anthem again until it was.
If the American flag wasn’t a symbol of honor, then the honorable thing would be not to honor it, I reasoned.
Still, I wanted to share the Folsom fireworks with my boys. The Fourth of July commemorates a significant historical event — a radical event, in fact — and I decided to celebrate that moment with my kids, while boycotting the flag-waving. (We were killing Iraqis then, too.)
I figured my refusal to stand at key moments might produce some comments, but I was OK with that. I knew it would offend people and that some would react rudely. I had experienced the pointing and whispers before, and it didn’t bother me one bit. It’s a free country, and we all have freedom of expression.
Besides, this is Boulder, right?
Somehow I managed to sit in front of the one person in all of Boulder County who was unfamiliar with the Bill of Rights. As the crowd rose to its feet — and I remained sitting — he slid his hands beneath my arms and tried to force me to stand.
“Get on your feet!” he hissed in my ear.
I jerked away and kept sitting, stunned that someone would have tried to use force to get me to comply with this social norm.
Fortunately for him — and for the people sitting around us — he relented. But the experience left me to reflect on the strange notion of enforcing patriotism.
Is it possible to enforce patriotism? Does love for the United States and its policies increase if we force people to stand for the national anthem? If we passed a law mandating such behavior, would anyone cherish America more?
Of course not. The very idea is laughable. Just like parents who demand respect from their teens and find themselves getting a middle finger instead, a country that demands loyalty from its citizens is less likely to receive it — particularly when that nation fails to live up to its own standards.
“America: Love it or leave it,” the bumper sticker says — a simplistic sentiment simply expressed. Whoever came up with this slogan makes the incorrect assumption that to criticize the United States is to hate it, that one can’t both love America and acknowledge its many shortcomings. This idea appeals to stupid folks, but it’s not true.
Like most dissenters, I love this country. I love the land, the wide-open spaces, the highways that roll on forever. I love its conflicted history, its mishmash of cultures and ethnicities, its heritage. I love its radical ideas about equality and freedom of expression and individuality. But I want more.
I want an America in which the president upholds the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions, rather than seeking to circumvent them. I want an America that admits when it’s wrong and does its best to make up for its mistakes. I want an America where there truly is liberty and justice for all, not just those with big bank accounts. I want an America that offers its help when needed, but doesn’t arrive uninvited riding a wave of shock and awe.
I want America as it should be, not as it is.
As the flag-waving reaches a frenzied pitch this weekend, perhaps we ought to consider this: The degree to which Americans feel the need to display their national pride — and to force other Americans to do the same, whether by compelling them to stand or shaming them into putting on flag pins — might well be an inverse measure of how much the United States actually merits that devotion.
Forget “America: Love it or leave it.” Try this on instead: “America: Change it or watch it fall.”
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