The following opinion piece was published today in The Brookings Register (Brookings, SD), my town’s newspaper. I composed and submitted it just prior to the recent killings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas.
We’re just past the Fourth of July, a holiday I always experience with mixed emotions. I’d be less ambivalent about the Fourth if, as a nation, we were as willing to engage in some periodic soul-searching as we are to drink our beer, wave our flags, set off our fireworks, and gorge ourselves in hot-dog eating contests. But national soul-searching isn’t cool. We don’t really know how to do it. Anyone who does it in public is likely to be called a name or two, flipped off, or even advised to leave the country.
Here’s the thing: I love America. What I don’t love is American nationalism—by which I mean, the hubristic belief that America is superior to all other countries and should fight on every front to remain so. That America exists by divine right and enjoys God’s blessing, whatever it does. That Americans should blindly conform to the demands of the state, “right or wrong.” That in the name of what’s good for the country, American leaders may happily bully, harass, slander, exclude, silence, and otherwise violate the dignity and rights of pretty much any citizen they choose, even to the point of torture and assassination. That Americans are most patriotic when they abandon civil discourse for jingoistic name-calling, rational debate for partisan shouting matches, and sensible compromises for hard-line extremism.
Such nationalism is dangerous. It doesn’t provide answers to our country’s problems. It throws gas on them.
Ironically, perhaps the only way we can counter the perils of nationalism is to love America more and better than we’ve been doing. So today, in that spirit, I want to pledge my allegiance to an America—
- in which all citizens, without exception, are equal under the law, not just on paper but in practice.
- in which individual rights and the needs of the community are justly balanced.
- in which public institutions and systems exist to serve the common good, promoting “the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” not of some, but of all.
- in which public policies are always crafted with an eye to future generations.
- in which the government and the economy aren’t dominated by a wealthy and privileged elite.
- in which all citizens can easily exercise their right to vote and trust their vote to be properly tallied.
- in which every citizen is provided with an excellent and affordable education.
- in which everyone who works hard is guaranteed a living wage and living benefits in return for their labor.
- in which our national resources of land, water and air—all required to sustain life—are stewarded with wisdom and respect.
- where police and military force are used only in self-defense, as a last resort, with full transparency and robust accountability….
I pledge allegiance to an America that is one people, vast and diverse and contentious and beautiful. E pluribus unum. “Out of many, one.” This America doesn’t yet exist, because it’s every generation’s work to help create it. I pledge myself also to that work. Will you join me?