The case for why hubris has no place in American patriotism and why our exceptionalism lacks authenticity.
By Susan Blood | Thursday, August 6, 2020
Patriotism has always meant much more to me than July 4th celebrations, patriotic symbols and slogans, the pledge of allegiance, or standing for our national anthem. I have always loved my country and had pride in what it was founded on, and what it stood for. I understood how America was exceptional in that it was “born of ideas: that all men are created equal, that they have been given by God certain rights that can be taken from them by no man, and that those rights combine to create a thing called freedom. They were free to pursue happiness, free to worship God, free to talk and speak in public of their views, and to choose their leaders.”1
Never did I have a stronger love and pride than when I joined the Coast Guard and swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic….”
A great deal of my pride in this country was based on the naïve impression that racism didn’t exist in the military, and by extension, our country. I developed this false impression, partly due to my White privilege, but also due the nature of military training. When civilians report to boot camp or to the Coast Guard Academy for swab summer, we are all issued the exact same uniform, the same salary, the same healthcare and benefits, and according to my White-privileged self, the same treatment.
We sweat, marched, learned, and lived together, inculcated the values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty, and overcame our differences to become a cohesive unit. By the time we graduated, we saw each other as equals. This equality followed us to our first units, where our shipmates greeted us, knowing that we had passed the test of boot camp, regardless of our gender, color, or background. Our careers followed us to every unit, and there was little requirement to prove ourselves each time we transferred, so long as we did our job.
In April 1942, the Secretary of the Navy announced that “African Americans would be accepted in capacities other than messmen” in the Coast Guard, thereby giving them the opportunity to serve in a capacity equal to other Coast Guardsmen. Over thirty years later, in 1973, women were given that same equal status, as they were officially allowed to enlist in the active-duty Coast Guard. In 1976, the Coast Guard Academy became the first service academy to offer 50 appointments to women, and in 1980, only 14 of these women graduated and were commissioned as officers in the US Coast Guard.2
With so few women officers in the Coast Guard by the time I graduated in 1991, Black male officers became my role models any time sexism reared its ugly face. As many of my White, male colleagues remained blissfully unaware, these Black, male officers would often pull me aside and counsel me on choosing my battles wisely. At times, they would stand up and speak out on my behalf, because they had already been forced to muster the courage to do so for their own, decades before I came along.
I attribute much of my success in the military to my Black male role models, because my strategy to confide in them and remain silent regarding sexist behavior proved to be much more successful than speaking out about it. Fourteen years of these Black male officers being my confidants formed a bond that cannot be broken or denied.
So naturally, when George Floyd was killed, I found myself conflicted. Unlike many of my friends on the political Right who vehemently denied systemic racism, I began to voraciously read scholarly books on racism, White privilege, and the history of policing in America.
Some of my friends on the Right have gone so far as to say that I have allowed myself to be brainwashed. I contend that I have simply chosen to become educated on issues that others refuse to acknowledge. This research allowed me to become more fully awake to racism in the United States, to the point that I will never be able to fall back asleep.
Do I, a patriotic veteran, remain silent about the country’s systemic racism and lack of police accountability, or do I stand up and speak out for my brothers of color who had my back for fourteen years? For me, this was no longer a “they” problem; now it was an “us” problem.
According to Gallop, patriotism has been in decline in America for years, even before our political landscape became so partisan and polarized. On the political Left, you have those whose patriotism is dampened by strong criticism of a country that, after hundreds of years, has not rid itself of systemic racism, police brutality, and economic inequality.
On the political Right, you have those who have replaced patriotism with nationalism and either deny that systemic racism, police brutality, and economic inequality exist or claim that nothing too drastic can be done about any of them without bringing ruin to our nation.
In What Unites Us, Dan Rather defines nationalism as a “monologue in which you place your country in a position of moral and cultural supremacy over others. Patriotism, while deeply personal, is a dialogue with your fellow citizens, and a larger world, about not only what you love about your country but also how it can be improved. Unchecked nationalism leads to conflict and war. Unbridled patriotism can lead to the betterment of society. Patriotism is rooted in humility. Nationalism is rooted in arrogance.”
I know many veterans and fellow patriotic citizens who love their country but who also strive to create “a more perfect union.” And this is where I find myself today, trapped between a group of overly-critical patriots on the Left who are offering recommended changes to policing practices in order to rid the country of systemic racism and a group of arrogant nationalists on the Right who are denying the existence of racism and resisting any sudden changes in policing practices.
“A nationalist can’t tolerate any criticism of his country and considers it an insult. But a patriot can tolerate criticism and have a thoughtful conversation about improvements,” explains Wes O’Donnell, a veteran of both U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.3
It is obvious that the Right does not tolerate criticism; they rarely admit mistakes. Rather than deal with systemic racism, those on the Right deny that it exists, treat any incidents of police brutality as isolated incidents, see any police involved in unauthorized use of force as an inevitable small percentage of “bad cops,” and create committees that meet only four times a year in efforts to quell any real changes in policing. To question the policies of our current administration is to be disloyal and, by default, unpatriotic.
Jonatham Haidt, an American social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, theorizes that our moral decisions come from intuition, rather than reasoning, stemming from foundations such as Care, Fairness, Loyalty, and Authority. The political Left identifies with Care and Fairness, while the political Right identifies with Loyalty and Authority, and likewise, Patriotism.4
Patriotism is seen as a value that belongs to the Right, and so the Left, by contrast, is seen as somehow unpatriotic. How better to get the attention of the political Right with regards to a need for more fairness than to kneel during the National Anthem, one of the nation’s most precious displays of patriotism? As citizens on the Left understand that the act of kneeling represents a fight for fairness, rather than a lack of patriotism, more people are choosing Fairness over Loyalty.
For me, there is no choice between loyalty to my country and fairness among my countrymen. Fairness among my countrymen wins, because until Fairness exists, Loyalty is hollow. As time goes on, more and more veterans, patriotic citizens, and athletes seem to be choosing Care and Fairness over Loyalty and Authority.
There are ways to increase patriotism and decrease nationalism in our country. Philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum encourages Patriotism to be taught with four goals in mind. The first is to “make love of humanity an explicit goal.” This goal already exists among the political Left; it seems more appropriately directed to the political Right, where racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia seem to reside.
The second goal is to “teach that compassion and empathy are unlimited resources.” As a slogan I saw recently said, “Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”
The third goal is to “extend self-compassion to America,” meaning to more kindly accept our imperfection and simply try to do better. This goal is clearly more appropriately directed to the political Left which can be overly critical and limited in their patience with the country’s faults.
The fourth goal in teaching patriotism is to “embrace authentic, not hubristic, pride,” authentic pride being a normal feeling associated with our nation’s successes and status, and hubristic pride being associated with arrogance. We could all benefit from a greater amount of patriotism, if taught under these requirements.
As more military members, veterans, and citizens work alongside those who are of a different color, gender, sexual orientation, gender orientation and culture, love for all humanity becomes an easier goal to embrace. There are many living examples of limitless compassion and empathy, as more people continue in the spirit of John Lewis and other civil rights activists whose compassion knew no bounds. Movements from the political Left that are trying to make positive change would express more self-compassion to America if they were to sense more compromise from the political Right.
Hubristic pride has no place in America and needs to be called out for what it is, and replaced with authentic pride.