The Fourth of July has come and gone. I enjoyed the parade, the street lined with bunting, the widespread cheer — but I felt like a fraud. I am a reluctant patriot. I have a great but conflicted affection for my country. I acknowledge and honor the sacrifices of our soldiers over the centuries on behalf of the U.S.A., but, at the same time, I will not wave a flag and wave away the atrocities that have also been committed in America’s name.
To begin with, to designate July 4 as a celebration of freedom and liberty is to turn a blind eye on all those who did not receive these benefits, most especially the enslaved Africans of the fledgling nation and the Native Americans who were betrayed at every turn.
That is only the beginning. Since our founding, we have had the Chinese Exclusion Act (officially repealed only in 1943), the internment of American citizens of Japanese origin, unfair quotas for Eastern European immigration (with deadly consequences for victims of the Nazis), and, of course, the ongoing brutality of our current immigration system on the Southern border.
After slavery was legally extinguished and a brief period of “Reconstruction,” the civil rights of the formerly enslaved and their descendants were trampled upon, and the legacy of this shame is still upon us as income inequality, health and educational disparities, and police violence. Native Americans, too, have never recovered from the shameful abridgement of their rights (and destruction of their very cultures), with the same deficits in income, health, education, and opportunity.
Let us not forget that women were not afforded full citizenship until 1920, long after many other countries moved on this issue, and to this day do not have full parity in pay and career options. The equal treatment of LGBTQ citizens has only in recent decades seen any improvement and has far to go.
There is also the matter of our country’s numerous invasions of other countries, including Mexico, Cuba (the Spanish-American War), Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. That list is incomplete and does not include the clandestine interference of our intelligence agencies in other countries, including Iran, El Salvador, Chile, and many others.
And yet … and yet: this country has been the land of opportunity and a beacon of hope for so many — for almost all of us, my own ancestors included. On my mother’s side, I am descended from impoverished Germans brought over by William Penn in the 17th century, and on my father’s side, from Lithuanian Jews escaping deadly pogroms in the late 19th century. People of myriad nationalities, including the Irish, the Italians, our own Portuguese, the Cubans, and so many more, have been given sanctuary and opportunity — not always freely given, but incrementally earned. Partly because of this cultural heterogeneity, and partly because of the bounty of this continent, America has until recently been seen as the world leader in innovation, progress, and prosperity.
American “exceptionalism” is a myth. Every human on Earth has the same potential, however buried it may be under brutal governance. I believe that in every North Korean there is a glimmer of yearning for freedom. We are exceptional only in our good fortune, in the rich resources available to us, and in accidents of history that brought us to unheard-of prosperity. We are “the richest nation on Earth.”
Genetic research underscores the minuscule differences between human populations. Still, a sometimes virulent tribalism is a component of being human. There has always been an “us” and therefore a “them.” Even in Provincetown, I can remember when the distinction between East Enders and West Enders was a real thing. Tribalism that morphs into nationalism is at the heart of so many conflicts, including the tragedy in Ukraine.
But there is a positive side to celebrating the heritage in which you were born. We just had our annual Portuguese Festival; it is important to recognize the contributions of particular cultures to the nation overall. I feel the same way about my Jewish heritage, even though I am not as interested in the religion that is at the heart of it. These feelings are tempered by the realization of the full negative power that tribalism can exert. British soccer matches often erupt in violence. In 2008, a Yankee fan drove her car into a Red Sox fan outside a New Hampshire bar, with fatal consequences.
I feel grateful to be a citizen of Massachusetts, lucky to be a Cape Codder — especially to be on the Outer Cape — and dazzled by my good fortune to be a resident of Provincetown. I will exercise my patriotism locally.