by JS O’Brien
Doubtless, the title of this piece made you think I was about to launch into a blame-America-first jeremiad on this July 4. Not the case. This is about pride; what it is and why it makes sense, or doesn’t make sense, to have it.
I grew up around adults who had a regional greeting when they shook hands: “Proud to meet ya!” I thought that was strange at the time, and I still do. Why would anyone be “proud” to meet someone? I suppose, theoretically, if you’d accomplished something really spectacular that got you into a meeting with someone powerful and famous, you could transfer your pride in accomplishment to that meeting, but that’s a bit roundabout, eh? More likely, it’s one of the manifestations — along with the phrase, “Proud to be an American” — of sloppy thinking and misplaced values that are an un-American as terrier pie.
The America I know and love is one in which pride is something one earns. It does not apply to what one lucked into, and my birth status as an American is just that: luck. I’m well aware that being an American makes me, almost automatically, one of the wealthiest human beings that ever lived, at least in material wealth. There are enough opportunities in this nation that someone like me – white, male, healthy, with a blue chip education – growing up in America when I did, would almost have to try to be entirely unsuccessful. I won the damn birthplace lottery. If you were born in the US, so did you. Congratulations on your good fortune. But don’t feel proud about it. You didn’t earn it.
Interestingly, when Lee Greewood wrote the lyrics to “Proud to be an American,” he seemed to understand this on some level:
If tomorrow all the things were gone
I’d worked for all my life
And I had to start again
with just my children and my wife
I’d thank my lucky stars
to be livin here today
‘ Cause the flag still stands for freedom
and they can’t take that away
And I’m proud to be an American
What he didn’t understand — and judging by the popularity of this song, many Americans also don’t get — is that “luck” and “pride” belong in separate categories (not to mention that the flag has absolutely nothing to do with what America is and should be, but flag worship isn’t the topic here). And I believe that it’s the inability to distinguish between these two things that are, in part, causing America’s decline, and barring her reemergence as the great nation she should be.
At root, I believe that the average American believes, at heart, that his/her material success is deserved. That if he or she had been born in the Sudan, starved as a child, with no parents, given no education, forced to carry a rifle in deadly combat at 10 years old, and blinded and paralyzed by pieces of hot shrapnel at 11, he or she still would have been just as materially successful, because there’s something special and virtuous about being an American. There’s something about just being born within the political, territorial boundaries of the US that makes a person better than other people. So, naturally, being better than other people is why you earned everything you got, and at least part of why you’re proud to be American.
This insane myth, that people get or don’t get the material wealth they deserve based on personal qualities in the absence of any sort of good or bad fortune, is at least partially responsible for American’s blindness to structural factors holding the country back: Primarily, tolerating the unlucky conditions that waste human resources through inconsistent education and opportunity.
So, I’m not proud to be an American. I’ve worked pretty hard in my life, and tried pretty hard, but I know that my efforts could have, and probably would have, come to almost nothing had I been born into a family in, say, a small, Rwandan village. I got lucky. I’m happy about that. Not proud.
America would be much closer to the America she could and should be if Americans had a little more humility.