The Spirited Discussions series is intended to be an uninhibited exploration of a topic related to politics, policy, and discourse. Exploration because it is not a debate but rather a conversation in search of truth. Uninhibited because of the spirits consumed during the discussion. This week, I sat down with my friend Roshni Gorur to discuss what it means to be “proud to be an American.” The highlights of that conversation are transcribed below. If you like what you read, check out more spirited discussions here.
Roshni: I have been traveling a lot for work over the past two years and when I was in Spain I was talking with someone about citizenship, nationality, and pride. He kept asking me, why are you proud to be an American? And I didn’t really have a concrete answer in the moment. There were so many things we were doing politically at the time that I didn’t want to associate myself with and that I wasn’t proud of. But at the same time, I come from a family immigrants. My parents grew up in India and were Canadian citizens up until a few months ago. One time I asked my Mom: “Am I Indian, am I Canadian, am I American?” And she said, “You are American. You’re only American. You should take pride in that.” So I grew up with my family really instilling a sense of pride in me. My Mom used to make me stand to listen to the national anthem when it played on TV, which I did not know was not a normal thing until I got older.
Joe: That’s hilarious. I actually find immigrants to be some of the most patriotic Americans—which is an interesting fact to have to grapple with for people who claim to be both patriotic but also oppose immigration. And I think part of that is because immigrants know what else is out there. I am a fourth generation American and for all intents and purposes I have never felt that I was anything but an American. But my Dad is a judge and he tells me about jury selection. And what he often says is that immigrants and first generation Americans are almost always eager to serve on juries because frequently, in their former countries, there is no such thing as a jury of your peers. The general public is not involved in the judicial process. So with that perspective, it is immediately obvious how this country is different and how, in their opinion, at least in this one specific instance, better.
R: I can see that. As a matter of fact the day my parents were naturalized happened to be the day that the day of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally was going on in Charlottesville, where me and my two sisters went to college. It was surreal that while my college town was being taken over by white supremacists saying that they don’t want immigrants in this country, my parents were opting to take the oath to become American. My parents did not become dual citizens. They said they wanted to be Americans. That they only wanted to be Americans. And I was very emotional that on this day, while my college town is under attack, my parents were saying this is what we want to be. We don’t want to run away from this country.
J: That is such a beautiful microcosm of what not only America is supposed to be and but also what America actually is and both things coexisting at the same time. I think the discussion on being proud to be American has to recognize both the good and the bad. I think a straw man of what “being proud to be American” means is that you ignore things that are wrong with the country. Frankly, I think if you do ignore those things than you have something other than pride. You are blind.
R: Yeah that’s more nationalism. But what’s the distinction between pride and nationalism?
J: I think genuine pride has to be based in truth, and a recognition of what actually exists. But also a recognition of what a country is striving for. I think the most I try to convince other people of is that America tries to do the right thing.
R: Another item from when I was studying abroad was that I would get upset when people would criticize the United States. How dare you, I’d think. Sort of like I can make fun of my brother but no one else can make fun of my brother kind of thing.
J: I think about that a lot within the context of the United Nations. Seeing countries like Libya and China lecturing the United States on human rights, for example. They could be making completely legitimate points that should be taken seriously, but I find I can’t take them seriously because it is Libya and China, with their own atrocious human rights records… Perhaps part of the reason is that I think if you criticize something that you are a part of, that you are responsible for, it could be coming from a place of trying to improve the thing. But if you are outside criticizing it, it’s probably a lot less likely to be the case.
R: In these conversations, I would often ask, “why don’t you criticize Venezuela for being proud of their country?” Things aren’t too great right now in Venezuela. Why don’t people criticize them for saying they are proud to be Venezuelan? Why is it more problematic that I say that I am proud to be an American? They would say it it’s because of the global influence the US has.
J: As in like with more power comes more responsibility? So maybe there’s a higher standard?
R: I also feel a lot more receptive to criticisms that have nuance. People in London would criticize media in the US and would say “well why don’t you do it the BBC way. We have this great public news system.” But you have to think about the historical implications of what it means to have state run media and that we intentionally built a system that is different from what was the British Empire at the time. We intentionally separated our media from our government. Has this system failed now? That’s a different question. If you don’t approach the now with the understanding of the nuance behind it, you are missing something.
J: That is something I think about a lot. For example, I think US foreign policy is often what gets criticized the most. And I think it is very easy to point to a specific example and, to borrow a phrase, say the US “meddles” in the affairs of other countries. But it is harder to step back and recognize that any given military intervention happened in a complex historical context. Say what you want about the war in Vietnam, but you must recognize that it happened during a little something called the Cold War which was an existential struggle in world history. I think that level of nuance is hard to come by.
R: Right and its hard to accuse someone from a different country for not having nuance about your country. How can I expect someone to approach a country that they don’t live in when they only see distilled news abroad? Especially when I don’t expect that our countrymen will approach these histories with nuance.
R: So what do you think when people assert that America is the best country in the world?
J: I don’t know what that means exactly, to be honest. What I do believe is that the United States of America is, I would argue, more responsible for the current period of unparalleled human liberty, security, and prosperity than any other country in the world. Starting with the drafting of our Constitution through the defense of its ideals against fascism and communism in the 20th century through our war against terrorism today. For leading the technological revolution of the 20th and 21st centuries. For establishing the liberal international order, including building institutions such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and World Bank. Our country has done amazing things. At the same time, we have done horrible things, which I also recognize. But on balance, do I think the United States of America is a force for good? Yes… In terms of “greatest,” the trap that people want you to fall into is if you take any one metric, healthcare for example, and then they point to Scandinavia. If you point to the economy, they will be quick to point to China, India, and the east Asian tigers. So I try to avoid that.
J: I wanted to ask you. Are you proud to be an American? And, either way, explain.
R: It’s such a loaded question. The answer is I’m not sure. I don’t know that I know what being proud to be an American means anymore. Does it mean that I support my government? If I don’t support my government but I like the people in my community, what does that mean?
J: I get that. I wanted to hit you with a Mark Twain quote, which goes: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.” Like we said before, if you support your government all the time you are blind and, in my opinion, making the country worse. But you should support your country all the time. For better and for worse.
R: It is essentially a marriage vow. For better or for worse, for sicker or for poorer, you stick with something. You are committed to it. It may not be the best all the time but I believe in its ability to be better.
R: I had an internship at a conservative think tank a few summers ago and I didn’t agree with many of my coworkers. But I am still friends with many of them and we are able to talk politics even if we disagreed and I think it’s because we all believe in the greatest in this country. That our country has an incredible potential for good. But we disagreed on what that meant and how it could be achieved.
J: I love that. I think that is a beautiful idea. That Democrats and Republicans—and this is probably not true for the fringe elements of both parties, but we can save that for another day—want America to be great. And they have somewhat different visions of how to get there but they probably agree on the fundamentals. People living happy, healthy lives with their families and in their communities and being able to achieve what they want to achieve. In an era of hyper-partisanship, I think this could be bipartisan.
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