Oscar Wilde, always attuned to a good epigram, said that patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. I don’t happen to agree. While its clothes can be stolen to cloak deeply unpleasant thoughts and actions, patriotism can also be a force for good. Nor is it a binary thing; I am proudly Scottish, firmly British, and culturally European. These identities overlap and can complement one another. What I have noticed, however, is that Americans express their undoubted patriotism in ways that feel rather alien to those of us on the eastern side of the pond.
President Trump declared the day of his inauguration, January 20, to be a National Day of Patriotic Devotion. It was slightly odd, perhaps, to declare a commemoration or celebration after the fact, but hardly surprising. Trump had, after all, more than most US politicians, campaigned for the presidency swathed in the red, white, and blue, promising to “make America great again.” It allowed him, if one is being charitable, to skimp on policy specifics. But who cares about detailed positions and plans when there is a flag to be waved?
As a keen and sympathetic foreign observer of the American condition, I have been interested to watch during my visits to the U.S. the open and straightforward way in which Americans love their country. There is, of course, the pledge of allegiance to the flag and “the Republic for which it stands,” which begins sessions of Congress and the school day for millions of children. And there is the unusually widespread flying of Old Glory, not just from official buildings but from many private homes and gardens.
The assumption of patriotism, and suspicion of its lack, runs deep. It is worth remembering that, when Joe McCarthy was looking for reds under beds in the 1950s, Congress set up an “Un-American Activities Committee.” There it was in the most Manichean terms: “American,” which is good and patriotic and right, and “un-American,” which is the opposite of all those things. Allied to unashamed patriotism is a reverence for those who have served: Grant and Eisenhower both rose to the presidency thanks largely to their military service, and John McCain campaigned at least in part on his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. (Trump’s remark about McCain’s war record — “I like people that weren’t captured” — was perhaps the crassest in his litany of crass remarks on the campaign trail.)
Because I am a fan of the genre, my mind turns to country music, which so often offers a distinctively American expression of love of country. When I first began visiting the U.S. in the early 2000s, shortly after 9/11, I heard Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” on the radio one day. In general, the song pulls no punches: “Justice will be served and the battle will rage / This big dog will fight if you rattle his cage.” In particular, it’s a vehement warning to those who would attack the U.S.: “We’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way!” When I first listened to it, as a skeptical, would-be cosmopolitan European, I honestly thought it was a spoof. But there’s more to it than that.
The song is subtitled “The Angry American,” and that is important. Anger suffuses the lyrics. It begins with a paean to the flag: “American girls and American guys / We’ll always stand up and salute, we’ll always recognize / When we see Old Glory flying.” Then it describes the attacks of 9/11, a “mighty sucker punch.” The image is clear: America as a sleeping giant, slow to anger, but, by God, decisive once it gets there. “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the US of A,” Keith sings. He’s angry, outraged even — How dare forces abroad attack America? But if you look again at the lyrics, you see the patriotic pride that underpins his anger, pride in a country synonymous with freedom and democracy. “When you hear mother freedom start ringin’ her bell,” indeed.
In Europe, we treat our patriotism very differently. Flag-waving is regarded with suspicion and is still often associated primarily with the extreme right.
Which brings us, I suppose, to American exceptionalism. This of course has long and venerable roots, going back at least to the Revolution and probably to the early settlers of the 17th century. It is widely believed by politicians and, importantly, voters, even now, in the early part of the third millennium, that America is not like other nations; that its history somehow has a narrative arc denied to other states; and that it has a duty to uphold as leader of the free world. That phrase, “leader of the free world,” is so casually bestowed on the American president that we perhaps do not think about it enough. There is a reductive economic and military logic to it, of course; even with a resurgent Russia and China on the rise, the U.S. is probably the world’s only superpower, and so it exercises a leadership role across the world. But there is something more to the phrase as well, some hint of responsibility and, indeed, inevitability. This feeling was, of course, very much shaped by the Cold War, when America really did lead, for the first time, “the free world.”
In Europe, we treat our patriotism very differently. Flag-waving is regarded with suspicion and is still often associated primarily with the extreme right. In England, the cross of Saint George is flown by racists and football hooligans to the extent that normal, workaday patriots have become almost embarrassed to embrace it; a senior member of our opposition Labour party was sacked in 2014 for sneering at a flag-flying house during a by-election campaign, her clear implication being that only bigots would be so bold. There are outbursts of “appropriate” patriotism, of course, mainly at sporting events but also at that uniquely British phenomenon, the Last Night of the Proms. (Readers unfamiliar with the tradition should check out its Wikipedia entry). Even these, however, are not without criticism. The Last Night of the Proms in 2001 was on September 15, while the Twin Towers were still smoking. Much of the patriotic pageantry was thus junked as “inappropriate” (I thought the opposite was true), and the orchestra instead fell back on Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It’s a moving piece of music, but I felt that a surge of patriotic feeling à la Toby Keith was just what was needed to assert our defiance in the face of an existential terror threat.
There is one other interesting point of difference. Just as sessions of Congress are opened with the pledge of allegiance, sittings of the House of Commons begin with prayers, which include expressions of devotion to the Queen and her government. A similar business, you may think — except prayers in the Commons are said in private, before members of the public are admitted. We make our obeisance away from prying eyes.
It is not for me to say that you are wrong and we are right; indeed, I often feel it may be more the other way round. But for Americans who want to understand the British, and, more importantly, perhaps, understand how we perceive you, I think our respective attitudes to patriotism and country are instructive. We may be coming closer to your way of thinking. Our honoring of fallen soldiers returned from foreign conflicts has become much more theatrical, with flag-draped coffins and crowds lining the streets. And there’s Brexit, of course, which our prime minister tells us will be “red, white and blue.” Perhaps, then, we will find a middle way yet. In the meantime, I will continue to find you Yanks a fascinating bunch.