National holidays like the Fourth of July always leave me feeling a little bit uncomfortable, like being the only single friend tagging along on Married Couples’ Night Out, or being invited to goggle and goo-goo at the pink, squishy newborn whom everyone else thinks is just the cutest thing to blink but has just spit up down the front of my shirt. Yes, I suppose, setting everything else aside, I can accept and even respect those folks who speak of love of country as something deeper, or higher, than blind support for everything the government does. But I have to be honest — I don’t get it.
My Nation-State, ‘Tis of Thee?
I am not sure, for instance, what a country actually is. The nation-state as a political entity has largely been defined as that peculiar hybrid of state and nation, of sovereign territorial unit and cultural/ethnic group. When we speak of the “state,” we mean the government and its military, exercising control over a given region, enforcing its borders and regulating the activities within them. On the other hand, appeals to the “nation” evoke the idea of a shared culture and heritage, a common tradition made up of familiar historical icons and social symbols. The nation-state, in today’s political language, is that entity that exists where state and nation happen to coincide in the same geographic location.
The concept of the nation-state can become problematic, however. Take Israel. (Please.) With aspirations to create a thriving nation-state, a Jewish democracy in the heart of the Middle East, the Israeli government has resorted to methods of oppression and occupation against the native population, Palestinians who had already been living in the region for generations when the State of Israel was first established (sixty-two years and two months ago, as of next week). Jews of the Diaspora, immigrating primarily from Europe and the former Soviet Union, hardly share a sense of cultural or ethnic continuity with the native Arab population, and this presents a major obstacle to “nation-state”-hood. The Israeli government’s solution, in an effort towards security as a sovereign power and solidarity with the West in its cultural self-identity, is to push out or exterminate those unwilling or unable to participate in their pre-determinedly “Jewish” democracy.
This story should sound familiar, for it parallels our own. The birth of our “nation” as a cultural/ethnic entity did not so much occur with the war for independence from Great Britain, which established the sovereignty of the United States as a geopolitical unit with its own government and military (i.e. the birth of our “state”) but did not signal any great rift of cultural identity. Rather, it had already begun years before with the gradual colonial occupation of the “new world” and the extermination of its indigenous peoples, the Native Americans. Indeed, this process of birthing a national identity was so gradual that in many ways it did not reach its full completion until almost a century later, after the Civil War and its aftermath firmly established the federal government as preeminent political body of a united politico-cultural unit. (Indeed, this linguistic analysis of plural versus singular usage of the term “United States” notes that it was not until 1902 that a House of Representatives committee ruled that “the United States” should be treated as singular rather than plural — in other words, our self-identity as a singular nation was formally recognized and established by the national government only a decade or so before the start of the first World War.)
The Settlers’ State — Mother of Exiles
The irony of this generations-long establishment of our sense of “nationhood” to compliment our formal political “statehood” is that, at the same time, ideals such as freedom and diversity were also slowly expanding — often painfully and against the explicit efforts of the government — resulting in an increasingly pluralistic society. The famous sonnet displayed within the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty — with its lines, “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — could reasonably be understood as a call of welcome primarily to the poor and wretched of Europe, then suffering under the economic and environmental pressures of the industrial revolution. (Oddly, the alternative title for Lady Liberty provided by the sonnet, “Mother of Exiles,” never caught on.) Only in recent decades has this call come to be appreciated as far broader in its implications and meaning, embracing those of Asian, African and Latin-American ethnicities as well (while many still retain an ambivalent attitude towards people of Arabian or Middle Eastern descent). Yet with the widening embrace of diversity comes the increasing tension between ethnic-cultural integrity, on the one hand, and assimilation into a shared sense of American identity, on the other. In other words, as the real and actual diversity of the United States continues to deepen, and if it is to remain authentic, the sense of the U.S. as a “nation-state” — a geopolitical unit that rests on a shared cultural foundation — finds itself on increasingly shaky ground.
Now this suggestion — that the United States as a singular nation is in a culturally unstable place — might sound quite radical, but in many ways it has echoes in conversations throughout the Pagan community. Not a few folks challenge the notion that “Paganism” can be fairly described as a singular movement or community at all, but may better be understood as a loose collection or network of archetypal types of religions, plural. In this particular debate I come down, albeit in laissez-faire fashion, in favor of using the word “Paganism” broadly and inclusively, primarily because I see at the heart of “Pagan identity” the invocation of (as I put it in a recent post): “the contemporary Western (counter)cultural (new religious) movement(s) centered on or drawing inspiration from an archetypal conception of ancient (and/or pre-Christian) native(/cultic/indigenous) Indo-European religious tradition(s).” But this only forces us to ask what is the archetype at the heart of “American identity” around which the concept of the U.S. as a nation-state coheres?
This American identity, as we most often see it portrayed and invoked today, can be characterized most strongly by the small-town/suburban, post-war-prosperity atmosphere of the 1950s — that decade when American wealth and power went unchallenged in the wake of World War Two’s devastation in Europe, and many U.S. citizens enjoyed both a sense of national-identity solidified by world war, and the prosperity and economic freedom that an expanding global, capitalist free market could bring. This decade saw the diversity of European nations united in the citizenry of the United States, integrated into a powerful community with a unique self-identity; no longer a community of exiles making a break from old European ways, but now seen as the culmination and pinnacle of Western civilization, inheriting and surpassing the legacy of Great Britain and, before it, ancient Rome. The decade also saw the blossoming of the consumerist cultural model, conceived by economists of the time as necessary for securing continued prosperity, a model that largely defines our understanding of “liberty” today (with its diversity of products suited to myriad demographics and subcultures, and the freedom provided by purchasing power).
Of course, this national self-identity, this “American Dream,” was in some ways always and only an illusion, an imagined archetype which politicians and other political leaders would recall with nostalgia, or invoke with gusto, as the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements and the Cold War against communism in the following decades once again challenged the notion of shared American identity or nationhood, especially for those belonging to unpopular political groups, racial minorities, or the female half of the species. Even today, there are folks within the U.S. who spout xenophobic rhetoric in defense of this dream of idyllic national integrity and pride, and would see not a beacon of welcoming freedom but a wall of concrete and barbed wire along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Canada — we cool….. for now.) These same people, who often speak the loudest in praise of American identity and national pride, would re-imagine the “state” itself as rooted in a Christian ethos. Though established firmly as a secular state, they are not far wrong in declaring the U.S. to be a “Christian nation,” insofar as the shared cultural foundation has until only recently been generally taken for granted as primarily Christian in tradition and heritage. Certainly, this shared culture can change and, some argue, is in the process of changing. But such change will fundamentally alter what we mean by the “nation-state” of the United States of America.
How Do I Love Thee? …No, Seriously, How?
Which brings me back to this question — what exactly is a country? Is it the government and political institutions of the sovereign state? The shared cultural heritage that serves as a foundation for the nation? Is it this precarious overlap, the nation-state, which saw its culmination post-WWII and is now, arguably and perhaps thankfully, in slow decline and/or gradual redefinition?
Depending on how we answer this question, the meaning of the phrase “love of country” could change drastically. Yet it seems to me there is an intentional ambiguity, even obfuscation, in how this word is used. People who talk about “loving their country” often freely mix references to government (praising liberal democracy, when it’s functioning well, anyway), historical legends, capitalist economics, cultural figures raised to semi-deified status, military triumphs, citizens’ revolts, individual rights, the beauty and fecundity of the landscape, and the people and places of their local communities. Rarely do they make coherent sense of this jumble of images and ideas, playing instead on the emotions and sentimental heart-swellings these symbols provoke. We are meant to feel pride, and gratitude, and love…. but for what precisely is left ill-defined.
With good reason. Because when it comes right down to it, “country” is an abstract, whether we identify it with the nation, the state, or a confluence of the two. Without the generous peppering of beautiful landscape imagery — amber waves of grain, purple mountains, shining seas — and the recalled faces of neighbors and loved ones who embody that sense of “community” for us in immediate and personal ways, there is very little there to grasp onto and pin the sentiment of national pride and love. (It is likewise difficult to maintain a pride-filled love of one’s government — or worship its historical and current political leaders as demi-gods — while maintaining the kind of distanced, dispassionate analytical mind necessary to engage rationally and critically with its processes and policies. Sentiment or reason, when brought head-to-head one or the other is bound to falter. Which is why it worries me a little that so many Pagans have picked up the trope this year of celebrating Columbia, named for Christopher Columbus, as a goddess of liberty.)
Holidays such as the Fourth of July serve as a kind of secular ritual for a civil religion, in which the visceral and embodied celebrations of the day — the parades, barbecues and fireworks, all couched in terms of broader politico-symbolic significance — serve to link the abstracts of “country” and “nation” to real, concrete experiences and memories. Without such national holidays, we might discover that it is not our “country” at all that we love, but the countryside itself, the land that gives us sustenance, the neighbors who warm our hearts, the ideals of justice and freedom that we see embodied quite powerfully in each other and ourselves without the need for the PATRIOT Act or the War on Terror to defend them. By participating enthusiastically in such ritualistic, state-sponsored holy days, we allow our experiences and memories of what is real and present to be usurped in the service of abstractions that can then be manipulated and played upon by those with their own agendas. We identify with the transcendent abstract, and our lip-service to diversity and difference is all too often lost in the rising tide of images, symbols and ritual acts all designed to evoke a very particular conception of national identity, one that recreates the idealized 1950s small-town feel and, even further back, the heroism and war of the Revolution itself.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good party. I will gladly hang out around the barbecue grill (veggie dogs and shish kabob, of course) or dance around the yard with sparklers and the fireflies on a warm summer night. I will happily come to dinner with you and your wife, or coo over your baby when it’s not being kind of gross. But don’t harbor any hopes of me playing along with some abstract ideal of Married Life or congratulate you on how your fertile lions have “really demonstrated the value of teamwork.” And don’t expect me to credit “my country” for the gorgeous scent of clover on the evening breeze or the belly-laughs shared with good friends over a beer. Because when it comes to stuff like that…. I just don’t get it.