Now, I’m not what most people would consider “patriotic.” I don’t feel any particular emotion when I gaze upon the flag, I’ve never liked reciting the Pledge of Allegiance going all the way back to elementary school, and that damn Lee Greenwood song that’s become a Fourth of July standard makes me want to kick puppies. But my attitude about these things is not, as many would accuse, because I hate my country. Rather, I dislike the baggage that’s become attached to the usual symbols of national pride in recent decades: sticky sentimentality combined with a strain of
belligerent jingoism that’s the exact opposite of what I consider the best about America; the social pressure to genuflect to anyone in uniform regardless of whether they truly deserve the label “hero” (motivated, I’m convinced, by collective guilt over all the home-front nastiness during the Vietnam War); and the simplistic “we’re number one” mentality that makes it nearly impossible to honestly assess our nation’s shortcomings and figure out how to improve. Not to mention the way “patriotism” has become just another blunt instrument wielded by one side of the political spectrum to accuse the other of being “un-American.” It’s hard to love the flag when some blowhard who clearly loathes me for not being just like him is wrapping himself in it and calling it his and his alone.
Nevertheless, there are some places and objects that remain unsullied by that kind of ugly mudslinging, things that penetrate my shell of pinko-liberal cynicism and cause me to reflect on the history and ideals of our nation: the sprawling Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam; the actual Star-Spangled Banner, the one notable exception to my general feelings about flags; the words of the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution’s Preamble; and of course a feminine colossus whose copper skin has gone green from a century’s exposure to the weather, technically entitled “Liberty Enlightening the World,” but better known as the Statue of Liberty.
Besides her aesthetic beauty and awe-inspiring scale — really, she’s big when you’re standing at the base of her — there is all that she represents: a beacon shining through the darkness to lead the downtrodden of the world to a better place… not necessarily a better physical place, although that’s how the words on Liberty’s tablet are usually interpreted, but a better social construct in which everyone is granted equal protections under the law as well as respect and dignity and a fair chance to make a good life for themselves, no matter who they are, what they believe, who they love, or what they look like. That’s what defines my America, not the military might or material wealth or Sunday-morning piety that most people think of. It’s an ideal we don’t live up to, frankly — in my opinion, we’re actually regressing away from it at the moment — and perhaps no country can live up to that. But it’s nevertheless an ideal worth striving for. We should be grateful to the people of France for providing us with such an effective and enduring symbol of what we’re supposed to be about.
So happy birthday, Lady Liberty. May your light shine on for centuries to come, until all the people of the world have finally come in out of the cold night of injustice…
If you want to see more pics like the one above, check out this slideshow at Talking Points Memo.