Since today is Independence Day here in America, the first since the terrorist attacks, everyone will be espousing how wonderful America is and how great it is to be and American. I guess I too have a little patriotism in me because I do love being an American. I want to live in Europe one day, but I will never give up my American Citizenship. I think being in Europe for a year has opened my eyes even more to what it means to be an American, I understand it for the first time.
Every American has heard the “we take our freedoms for granted” speech in one form or another, but it takes something to truly understand what it means, and to understand those freedoms. The events of September 11, 2001 awakened many Americans and many people took more time to think on those freedoms and I suppose many people came to a new understanding of what our freedoms mean. I thought about it and from and intellectual point of view I understood that those freedoms do not exist in other parts of the world—and exist no where in the same way. Soon afterwards I had an experience that made me understand in a much more realistic way what separates America from the rest of the world.
I attended an anti-war rally in England in the fall—not because I was totally against the “war on terrorism” but simply for the experience. At the war rally a man attempted to burn and American flag as a statement. Apparently it is illegal to burn a state emblem in England (those I don’t suppose they would enforce that rule if it had been the Afghan flag.) And the man was taken by the police and the flag burning stopped. This small incident was kind of funny at the time and all my non-American friends mumbled things like “police state” under their breath. Latter on as the day wound down and I thought about it the significance of not being able to burn a state emblem started to really sink in.
I am old enough to remember the Supreme Court ruling that burning the flag was a form of free speech and therefore protected under the Bill of Rights. So had the anti-war rally been held in the US the flag burning would be legal—but not in Europe. That is where the true meaning of those freedoms we take for granted come from, and there is no way to describe that meaning to anyone who has not lived with them and lived without them.
When I was in Greece in December my friend C—- asked me why the “Right to bare arms” is so important to Americans. To him the question of guns is simple—they are illegal in Greece because they are murder weapons. I really could not explain to him why it is important to most Americans to be able to own guns. To say “it is because the Bill of Rights gives Americans the rights to own arms and that many Americans are afraid that if the government takes that right away we will begin a slide down the slippery slope to no freedoms,” does not really capture the meaning and the reason. To C—- the question is black and white, to America it is beyond even shades of gray and is filled with countless colors.
One day at dinner in England I was joking with a girl about American, her pointing out all the things that where “wrong” with America from her point of view and me defending them. At one point I just said America was the greatest country on Earth. She laughed and said “yea, whatever.” But when I challenged her to name a better one she became a little angry and started really attacking America. Then one of the British guys at the table came to Americas defense, saying “no, he’s right—because the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights are three of the most philosophically enlightened documents in the world. To base the government of a country on that is amazing, most of the rest of the world’s been trying to copy and improve on it for the past two hundred years—and failing.”
These events, and many others I had in Europe really bring home what is means to be American, what the freedoms we have give us. Individually many freedoms we enjoy may not seam very important, a few have taken on lives of their own—freedom of speech, right to bare arms, etc.—but our freedoms are more gestalt, it is the whole that defines us as US.
America is the great experiment in modern democracy begun by the founding fathers. And more than two hundred years on we have not fully lived up to many of the goals they set; we have yet to achieve “liberty and justice for all,” or to realize that “all men are created equal.” The ideas may have been born in the Europe of the Enlightenment but the reality belongs to Americans.
My friend R—– said to me that patriotism is a bad thing, that it is the cause of tribalism and war in the modern world, that humans need to move beyond the idea of the state, that patriotism perpetuates, into a more global mind set before we destroy ourselves. But I think that a little patriotism is not a bad thing as long as it does not blind you to the needs of the world as a whole. The terrorist attacks on American have rejuvinated patriotism in America. In the beginning it was blind patriotism but hopefully people will reflect on what it means to be American and will look at the effect that America, it’s wealth, it’s power, it’s ideas and it’s problems have on the rest of the world. Hopefully people will realize that to be American is to be part of the great experiment, and that the goal of that experiment is the betterment of mankind, not just Americans.