Inclusive patriotism in America

Friday, 3 July 2009

Hello, the Fourth of July is tomorrow! I'm going to a picnic in Battersea Park. I'm looking forward to being conflicted (and also drunk). America is a cultural empire, and the whole point of the holiday is "Fuck you, giant English-speaking capitalist empire who controls most of the world's trade routes!", which is ironic and uncomfortable! On the other hand, it is also about "stodgy older-generation Europeans versus brash young vigorous New Worlders" which is kind of still applicable?

America, circa 1775


Anyway, for me it is a holiday about ideas more than anything else, and it's really excited that you get to marry the ideals of "personal liberty" and "governmental accountability" and "all people are created equal" with "drinking beer on the lawn" and "blowing harmless yet loud stuff up" and "bombastic marching-band music".

And edgy patriotic songs, which I love most of all.

America, the Beautiful

America, America, God mend thine every flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law
The first verse, which everyone knows, is pretty and inoffensive, but in the later ones, man, this song gets down to it. This one is my favorite because it implies that America has flaws, a shitload of them. Like how it lacks self-control and doesn't have laws that confirm liberty for everybody. Which, oh, wait, it still doesn't! Oh my god! It is especially awesome because the lyrics were written by Katherine Lee Bates, a "literary spinster" living in a "Boston marriage" with her "lesbian girlfriend".

This Land is Your Land

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
By the welfare office, I saw my people
And some were stumbling, and some stood wondering
If this land was made for you and me
POOR PEOPLE ARE CITIZENS TOO?! I just, I love all imagery where the nation is acknowledged as a community of disparate origin, means and gender. And Woody Guthrie is so optimistic. He tells you about these problems, introduces this tension and that uncertainty, asks the question of whether it's going to change, and then rolls you into the affirmative chorus of "yes! This land is your land!" The inclusiveness of "my people" is just lovely.

The Ghost of Tom Joad

Tom said, Where there's somebody fighting for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody's struggling to be free
Look in their eyes, Ma, you'll see me.
Less optimistic, and also more explicitly patriarchal, with Tom Joad as the breadwinning social justice champion and Bruce Springsteen hanging around the campfire listening to him. But. It's still hopeful, and it puts the onus on the individual to take action against social injustice, instead of describing how things should be and hoping they'll get there eventually.

Here, have a manifesto: Let America be America again, Langston Hughes.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Hughes is probably my favorite writer of all time, and this poem. I used to cry over it in university because I didn't think it was true, or possible. I do now, though. In January I went to Barack Obama's inauguration and it was just so fucking special, you guys. I remember sitting in a Tex-Mex bar around the corner from the Lincoln Memorial with one of my best friends, drinking El Cheapo margaritas and singing the above "This Land Is Your Land" with the other young people in the bar, and the million people out on the grass, and we were all crying and laughing and cautiously hopeful and impoverished and tipsy and that, folks, I think is what America is all about.


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