This July 4th found Z and I wandering around New York, passing street after street of houses and storefronts bearing American flags and proud displays of red, white, and blue. This festive atmosphere got me thinking: What did patriotism – defined as “the devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country” – mean in our respective nations?
Unlike admitting your gluten-intolerance or tendency to binge watch Game of Thrones, professing your patriotism won’t garner you any respect among twenty-somethings in coastal cities today. Nonetheless, it’s true: I take a lot of pride in my national identity. Though “patriotic” hasn’t always been an adjective I would use to describe myself, I’ve finally made peace with this sometimes loaded term. As is often the case, France is to thank for this development — France, with a little help from the Netherlands.
Across the street from Rembrandt’s former house in Amsterdam is a convivial restaurant and pub. In May, as Z and I sat at one of the dark, wooden tables, Z pushed aside his mug of Heineken to glance at his watch.
“It’s almost 8 o’clock,” he remarked. “There’s supposed to be a couple minutes of silence soon.”
“Why?” I inquired from my happy tourist stupor, which had been steadily nursed by a glass of red wine.
“Today is Commemoration Day in the Netherlands for those who died in World War II. There’s a ceremony starting at Dam Square.”
I looked around. Waiters flew by with teetering plates while the jabber of customers blended into a single drone of contentment. “I don’t think we’ll see anything about that in here,” I shrugged.
It turned out I was wrong. As the clock approached eight, the waitstaff scurried back towards the bar; one employee flipped on the TV. When the hour struck, all chatter within the restaurant evaporated into silence, and every head turned to watch the televised procession of the King and Queen across Dam Square.
After one hundred and twenty seconds, a blare of trumpets over the speakers finally broke this reverent hush. Immediately, waiters resumed their perpetual bustle, and Dutch diners faced their table companions once again.
This brief but intense interlude won Z’s admiration. “That was really impressive how everyone stopped to pay their respect,” he mused. “I wish we were more patriotic in France…”
Z’s rueful statement surprised me, but on second thought, I recalled that I’d never seen any noteworthy display of patriotism in France. Though I’ve previously written about “French exceptionalism” (the idea that the country is unique and perhaps even superior in a global context), it suddenly struck me that the French weren’t really an outwardly patriotic people.
This fact isn’t as glaringly obvious as one would think. After all, Paris in particular is so steeped in history, culture, and tourist traps that the very fact of its existence seems a testament to love of country.
When I voiced that, actually, I had never seen a private residence fly the French flag, Z wondered aloud if only state buildings had the legal right to display them. After some quick Googling proved that suggestion wrong, he conceded, “Okay. I guess only the government displays them because no one else wants to.”
“Well, I think displaying the flag means you support the Far Right.”
My thoughts rushed to the 2012 presidential election in the US and the controversy over which candidate wore a flag pin more often. Though a similar zeal for displaying the flag can be found among conservatives in the States, fortunately, the rest of us are still able to wield this powerful symbol without fear of being branded an unsavory extremist. After all, the flag was supposed to represent all Americans, not just a subset of the population.
I turned back to Z and insisted heatedly, “You should fly the flag! It’s your flag too — don’t let the Far Right take ownership of it. Aren’t you proud of being French?”
I went on to describe a few instances when I took part in flag-waving.
Z regarded me skeptically, finally interjecting, “Wow, they must’ve really brainwashed you over there.”
“They did not.” I was defensive. “I mean, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance when we were little and had to learn to sing the national anthem — but that was it.”
Z’s eyes widened with horror. “They made you recite a pledge to your country? And sing the national anthem? When you were children?”
“Yeah,” I affirmed, confused. “I mean, it’s not a big deal is it? Don’t they do that in every country?”
“No way.” Z shook his head. “We didn’t do that. That’s total brainwashing.”
“Oh.” I fell silent.
Admittedly, upon reflection, such practices could seem – well – creepy, but apparently they had been rather effective. Not only do Americans not have compunctions about flying the flag, I also thought to myself that, under certain circumstances, Americans have an incredibly strong sense of national unity. (Hear me out.)
I recalled the nights after 9/11, when everyone in my neighborhood flooded outside to hold candlelight vigils. Even as a middle schooler, I’d felt touched by the sudden closeness of my diverse little suburb. I also thought back to the nights when President Obama was elected and when Bin Laden’s death was confirmed. I had barged into the streets with seemingly the rest of my town and watched people high-five strangers, whoop spontaneously, smile deliriously…
It was highly unlikely such reactions could have occurred on a national scale in France, I realized.
It was also in France – after learning of the Newtown shooting, Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing – that I became aware of how sorely I missed that sense of American unity. There were no vigils, no acknowledgment from neighbors, riders on the metro, or most of my colleagues. Though this was completely understandable, it was also isolating.
And that’s how I grasped Z’s point. Brainwashing or no, I was patriotic.
Patriotism doesn’t mean I think the US is doing everything right. It doesn’t even mean I think it’s doing some of the basic things right.
But my protestations don’t disqualify me from patriotism. In fact, it’s crucial that they cannot disqualify me from patriotism.
On July 4th, as I led Z through the decked out streets of New York, I felt particularly grateful for this fact. The American flag had not yet been lost to any one group — as far as I could see.