Friday, July 04, 2008

To the Huddled Masses

While I often will rant about politics and the state of American culture, I very rarely write about America itself. However, with Memorial Day recently passed, having spent a week with Captain Galan, and today being July 4th, I have been thinking somewhat of my relationship with the country of my birth.

As most of you know I am not a gun toting, flag waving American. You will never catch me wearing an American flag tie to church, not because I'm not patriotic but because I think they're tacky. Nor will I put a flag poll in my front lawn, not because I don't honor the flag but because I could never treat it with due respect and care.

You will however find me standing quietly for the entire national anthem at a sporting event. You will find me solemn and reverent when I visit national historic monuments like those in D.C. My solemnity turns to tears when I walk the grounds where our brave men and women have bled and died in places like Gettysburg, Saratoga, or Normandy. My patriotism is my own, and it is not something that I often flaunt.


However it is something that burns hot when I hear people use the guise of patriotism to justify the ugliest of racisms and bigotries. It infuriates me when people use their patriotism to justify "English Only" initiatives, or to warn of the danger of Muslim immigration, or to belittle others as unpatriotic for not wearing a flag lapel pin.

The ideals that motivate these false patriotic sentiments are not the ones that allowed a Portuguese Sephardic Jewish emigre to pen "The New Colossus" in an era when she herself wouldn't have been considered "white". Yet Emma Lazarus looked forward with the hope implicit in Ellis Island and the immigration booths of New York City when she wrote the immortal words:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Sailing past that modern colossus my paternal great-grandfather and his parents came to this country. He carried with him the wounds he suffered in the trenches of Picardie and Alcase-Lorraine from shot and gas. He left the land of his fathers to come to America to make a better life.


At the same time but on the other side of the continent, my Mexican ancestors fled the violence of Pancho Villa and the Revolution to settle in California. There they lived, my great grandmother never learning English but raising her children to love their adopted homeland. There my grandfather watched the navy ships come in and out of the harbor and longed for the day when he too could join the navy, enlisting as so many others before he was of age to fight.

This is the story of all people in this nation. I think Barack Obama said it better than I can.
I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible....It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one.
I am not short-sighted enough to think that these anecdotes justify an attitude of superiority and condescension toward the rest of the world. Nor do I believe that the actions of America are inherently righteous. I cringe when I hear Americans pray for our troops to be blessed but not for peace to reign. Implying in their prayers that God should bless our troops that they'll shoot straighter than our enemies. Do I want our troops to be blessed? Hell yes. But I'd rather they be blessed by being returned to their families and loved ones in safety.

I find it offensive that demagogues, sophists, and fascists have co-opted the language of patriotism and made it proprietary to their political affiliation. They have no right to claim a monopoly on love of country, yet they do, and too often people allow them to do so. Even worse the bombastic rhetoric of these ill-informed hypocrites leaves too many ashamed of their own patriotism. Many fear that they will be associated with the ideas of the lunatic fringe if they, for example play the Marseillaise (wrong country? well it's true in France as well as America).

From a personal perspective, my nationality is an act of God, nature, or biology over which I had no control. I could have just as easily been born in Baghdad, Paris, or Rio as Newport Beach, California. I can derive from this accident of birth no superiority over any other person in any other part of the world. But I can and should be grateful that I live in a nation where I have the opportunity to rise from humble beginnings and make for myself something better. That ultimately is the promise that my immigrant ancestors sought at Ellis Island and it is that promise that makes me proud of my country, despite it's follies.

10 comments:

Astrid said...

Thanks for sharing that. It was good for me to read. I hope you're having a great day.

La Yen said...

Yes. Thanks.

John, Megan and girls said...

Wow, great post. I'd like the think the brilliance of it, and the passion behind it come from it being written on my computer, but, I think not.

Roy @ CNM said...

Just when I'm sure I'll never see a cool blog post from you again...Nice stuff. I agree wholeheartedly. When are you running for office?

Snowbunny in the City said...

Amen.

Jon & Chelle said...

I like reading your blogs. I especially like how you can go from blogging about Mountain Dew to being so patriotic.

dastew said...

Not one of our right wing readers comments to vilify my pinko liberal diatribe? Honestly I'm not going to write anything provocative again if I can't get a rise out of you people!!!!

museumeg said...

Emma Lazarus rocks! And you didn't offend this right-wing reader. Of course it could be my left-leaning tendencies.

steph doyle said...

amen.

Tara said...

Wow, Stewart,
Well said! As a national now of three different countries, (India/Canada/US) i can say with a lot of conviction that the average American is friendly, helpful, easy-going, interested in other cultures and non-judgemental. It has been my good fortune to come across such people in my sojourn through the various State(s) of America. Yes, I attended the 4th of July fireworks in New York and felt very proud to be sharing the moment with all around me - the original and the hyphenated Americans! Only in America, eh(!)
Right now, right here, is where I want to be.
Tara Dharan.
Tara Dharan.