I am an American. I grew up in a patriotic household. My parents encouraged me to learn the National Anthem at a young age. We attended, and hosted, Independence Day parties. We soaked in the beauty of the United States from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam.
I love my country, because it is my home. And while I consider myself a patriot, I practice an atypical patriotism – one that takes pride not just in America, but also in the rest of the world. This difference is important to me, as an international traveler.
In recent decades, patriotism in the United States has been hijacked and used as an instrument of division. What should unite us as Americans – a shared love of freedom and liberty – often draws us apart. Patriotism has been politicized – it is now less an affirmation of love for the diversity and freedom found here, and more about staking territory in politics and power.
I read a Washington Post article this week, which described C.S. Lewis’s writings on love of country. In his book The Four Loves, written at the height of the Cold War in 1960, Lewis said this of patriotism: “We all know now that this love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.”
In 1960, the memory of World War II was not distant. The war had exposed the incredible evil that can exist in humanity, seen through the hatred and holocaust that existed in Nazi Germany. I believe Lewis feared situations where patriotism (or nationalism) would lead people to become blind – to the world, truth and virtue.
As we work our way through this tumultuous presidential election season, many candidates have spoken about love of country – from both sides of the aisle. Many have labeled the United States of America the “greatest country in the world.” That is a problem.
Before you start prepping an angry comment, let me remind you that I love America – for the freedom to speak my mind and do what I want, and for the opportunities I have had to earn an education and create a rewarding life. But the argument that America is the greatest country isn’t patriotism – it is nationalism. From the article I quoted earlier:
Joan Didion said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and this is as true of nations as it is of individuals. America has her myths: Paul Revere’s ride, peaceful cooperation with Native Americans, the Christianity of our Founding Fathers. Some of these myths may have some truth to them, but none tell the whole story, the “shabby and shameful” parts.
I quote this text not to “put down” or shame my own country, but to point out that no nation or state is perfect. The United States is the greatest country… for me. There is no objective ranking of countries. Our preference for one over another is a personal assessment. The love I have for America exists in the same way for people of other countries. In meeting foreign nationals throughout the world, I’ve found that they wouldn’t trade their citizenship, lifestyle or culture for mine. My friends who live abroad are proud to be English, Chinese, Dutch or Russian – just as I am proud to be an American. Their countries are great for them, mine is great for me.
As a world traveler for most of my life, I have resisted the shift from patriotism to nationalism in America. Nationalism has a tendency to subjugate people and create victims. In the past, it has drawn lines separating people based on their differences. My travels have made me realize that there is something greater than nationality: humanity. While trips to Beijing and Shanghai did not make me Chinese, my similarities to the people there outweigh our differences.
As C.S. Lewis once said, “What draws people to be friends is that they see the same truth. They share it.” I would have missed out on many friendships, had I brought nationalist ideas with me when traveling abroad. All travelers, whether frequent or infrequent, should approach each trip with a focus not on their nationality, but on their humanity. Because, when it all comes down to it, we’re the same. And the color of our passport cover is inconsequential to our value and identity as human beings.