American Culture

Are you proud to be an American? I’m not.

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.

12 replies »

  1. Excuse me but America is not in decline, China and the rest of the world are in decline but America is always growing and will always be the richest and most powerful nation.

    Read George Friedman’s The Next Decade to see what I mean.

    Being proud to be an American is being patriotic and not about pride. We Americans are a humble lot and we are proud of our country as we are patriotic.

    God bless the USA and may it always grow and prosper, thanks to the hardworking people it has and not because of some unbeliever in being proud to be an American.

  2. For the record, that last comment was insane. 1) Decline point is wrong. 2) Will always be the richest and most powerful is nonsense. EVERY empire has said that. Read Cato the Elder. 3) A humble lot? Seriously?

    JS–you make several useful points–yes, much of our national greatness is “due to our “software” (Constitution, democracy, etc) but much is due to our hardware” (greatest collection of unexploited natural resources at the right time in history, relative remoteness providing security, etc) and no, none of our individual greatness is a result of having been born here. that’s good fortune, not accomplishment. To me it’s like folks who live in a cool place (like Boulder or Taos) and who by extension think they must be cool, and those who live in uncool places must be uncool. It’s sloppy thinking.

    Good luck explaining those nuance to fools like Ronald.

  3. Perhaps it’s a failure of our educational system that people don’t understand that one needs to voluntarily make unusual sacrifices to accomplish a worthwhile goal in order to earn a feeling of pride. I am not proud of “serving my country” for four years (1966-1970) in the US Army because I was induced by various circumstances to do so in my own self interests. Persons who served out of patriotic fervor may be entitled to feel proud of their service.

  4. Ronald,

    As I’ve said, I’m proud of nothing I didn’t earn. Since I didn’t choose my parents (to the best of my knowlege), I didn’t earn being an American. That was a lucky break. Clearly, you’re proud of your luck.

    As for patriotism, I believe you confuse it with nationalism, which is an entirely different thing. A true patriot is like a parent who loves his child very much, but is not so blinded that he believes that child to be perfect in every way. Not believing his child to be perfect, he attempts to help the child become a better adult by correcting the child’s flaws, and reinforcing the strengths. A nationalist is like the parent who believes his child to be completely flawless. Except, when applied to a nation, he believes his nation to be perfect in every way. That’s not very useful.

    As for the US always being the “richest and most powerful nation,” it would be the first time in history that ever happened. I wouldn’t bet on it.

  5. Great piece. I think a good dose of individual and national humility would do a tremendous amount for the national good. Unconditional pride blinds us to the ways we could improve.

    Reminds me of all the self-esteem programming that kids get–the “trophy just for participating” kind of thing. That kind of feel-good esteem is ultimately hollow (research supports this), especially compared to the feeling you get when you earn a victory.

  6. Ah, yes, read George Friedman, the chief intelligence officer of an organization that’s roundly laughed at by everyone with even semi-serious foreign policy chops. Given Friedman’s track record at predictions, i think i’ll pass on banking on his forecast for the next decade.

  7. Addendum: I forgot about Friedman’s classic “The Coming War with Japan”. That’s what he was predicting in 1991. Maybe i missed that war or something.

  8. Interesting point of view! I also am not proud to be an American. Why? Because I believed the cold war propaganda that I grew up in. I believed we could make a better world in the social revolution of the 60s. Maybe we did, for a little while. Now I am only sad!.Sad, that we no longer keep the moral high ground. Sad, that our government has made such a parody of human values. Sad, that the government believes it’s the best parent and family. Sad, that the constitution no longer follows the flag. Sad, that education has been so dumbed down and rewritten, that people do not even know what they lost by choosing security from imagined dangers over freedom. Proud of What? Rhetoric and spin have replaced substance just as paper has replaced gold.

  9. Maybe the song is a call to “arms” not literal arms but you know whatever it is that would make you proud in relationship to America and what it means to you to be American.

    “And I gladly stand up,
    next to you and defend her still today.”

    Basically saying, I’m doing something in thanks for the great luck of being born in America, therefore, I am proud.
    standing up in whatever way for America, as an American.