The upcoming July 4th holiday always prompts reflection on the art and practice of patriotic display. It’s hard to ignore the sheer number of flags flying over the January 6th coup attempt. And for some, exuberant flag-waving and the expression of lofty sentiments about freedom and the Founders is vexed by the facts of American history. The arm that waves the flag may hesitate and falter slightly when confronted by the country’s record of protecting basic human rights for all people: for indigenous people, for enslaved people, for women, for all those whose identities don’t fit into the white, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian categories that the Founders took for granted. In his renowned speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” Frederick Douglass reflected at length on the contradictions of American history and how far short the country had fallen from its basic principles.
James Baldwin speaks to the belief in American exceptionalism in this way: “The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that.”
And yet: the principles, the laws, the institutions enshrined in our founding documents have produced a society in which progress is possible, however slow and difficult it may be. Try to imagine what it felt like for John Lewis and the other Freedom Riders to climb on a bus in 1961, knowing they would be viciously attacked by crowds wielding bats and pipes when that bus pulled into Birmingham, Alabama. What did that ride feel like as the miles rolled by? In spite of our shortcomings as a society, the country seems to have traveled to a better place.
And while Baldwin’s words may sound disparaging, they do not tell the whole story: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” For Baldwin, criticism, even harsh criticism, is one of the forms that patriotism takes. It travels alongside a love that pays attention, that sees clearly, and in spite of it all, celebrates that love.