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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Patriotism Felt Wrong and Embarrassing Until I Refused to Let It

When Cory Booker told Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, "You are a great American,” it laid bare my own unease about earnestly loving this country.
Patriotism Felt Wrong and Embarrassing Until I Refused to Let It
Illustration: Angelica Alzona
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I am not someone with a lot of love for Congress or any of its members, whom I often refer to as Congressmonsters. I am angry at their frequent dereliction of duty, their deference to lobbyists, their constant running for office rather than serving in it. So for my own sanity, I kept my awareness of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court hearings to a minimum. I did not need to listen to Ted Cruz perform forceful ignorance, or Marsha Blackburn’s aggressive white supremacy, or the Democrats’ mealy-mouthed refusal to tell their worst-behaved colleagues to shut the fuck up.

Yet, someone insisted I watch Senator Cory Booker’s speech, so I did, and I was shocked (and embarrassed, honestly) to find myself sobbing through a strange mixture of emotion: heartbreak swirling with relief, and maybe even hope, and could it be, possibly, some renewed energy, something like inspiration? From his seat in the chamber, Booker did what none of his other Democratic colleagues would: He called out his “demagogic” colleagues, citing the conservative National Review, which had described the ridiculous charges being lobbed at Judge Jackson as “demagoguery.” With a pointedly happy expression and upbeat tone, he vowed to Judge Jackson that he would not let his joy at her presence be stolen by those people.

Patriotism, lately, for me and (I think) others like me, feels wrong and embarrassing, because I associate it with the worst kinds of racists and reactionaries. I could not—or at least did not bother to—imagine earnestly being a patriot, when the people who most loudly identified as patriots were people whose behavior I found abhorrent. But Booker’s speech raised an unspoken question: What else are we letting be stolen by people who are by admission of their own side “demagogic?” By its end, I was reconsidering a recent idea I’d had to put a Black Lives Matter sign up in my apartment window in the small, politically purple, rural town where I live. I am now thinking I might also put up an American flag.

I do not feel what I would consider a flag-waving kind of patriotism. Yet I do care for this country, and I am a citizen of this country. I helped start an antiracism project at my local library, and I meet with my neighbors to read books about community and against tyranny, because of something not wholly unrelated to patriotism that is absolutely rooted in love of country. What if refusing to allow the American flag to be a hate symbol is part of the active citizenship, the critical patriotism, that I am compelled by? What if it could represent not something angry and antiquated and obsessed with an old way of power, but an active, living thing that we tend and grow?

All three of us were crying, and the two staffers behind Booker, as he stared at Jackson and told her, “You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.”

But it was when he talked about “a love in this country that’s extraordinary” and the way Jackson’s parents, like so many immigrant Americans and minority Americans, “didn’t stop loving this country even though this country didn’t love them back” that I started thinking that I have been negligent, simply turning my back in anger on the idea of taking agency in my identity as an American.

I have been so focused on loving the people this country doesn’t love back that I have overlooked the ways in which I could reclaim this country by loving them not just as myself but on behalf of this country. What if I said, “As an American, I love you. It is not just me but the America in me that loves you. That is grateful to you. That sees your Americanness, too, and holds it up.” It is American to acknowledge fully our nation’s history of exploitation and violence. It is American to say, “This nation was founded on a genocide and I hate that and I cannot change that and so now my American work is to look at what I can do to repair the wound of our founding, the ongoing wound of our existence.” It is American to say, “This nation was built by enslaved Black folks, its railroads were built by Chinese migrant workers paid less than white workers would’ve been while whites spread disgustingly racist lies about them.” It is my American work to tell these truths as I try to make the American existence less harmful and more inclusive and also reparative.

I have been consumed with anger at the late-stage capitalism this country revolves around, and I have wrongly allowed myself to believe that is America. That America is exploitation and abuse and a scarcity mindset and redbaiting and fearmongering and hyperindividualism and bootstrap ideology. But why should it be? I am America, as much as anyone. I am a Jewish Lebanese-Armenian Icelandic child of immigrants, descendent of refugees, and I am also American.

For our antiracism project at the small town library, we are reading the Jason Reynolds “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, which includes an introduction from Kendi, who writes:

I was taught that ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies. But when I learned the motives behind the production of racist ideas, it became obvious that this folktale, though sensible, was not true. I found that the need of powerful people to defend racist policies that benefited them led them to produce racist ideas, and when unsuspecting people consumed these racist ideas, they became ignorant and hateful.

Unsuspecting people. Even after I read this, the next day when I was thinking about it, my brain had changed it to “ignorant people.” And then I tried to redefine ignorance, and was defining it as “unknowing,” because I was reaching for the same idea Kendi is holding up. People who consume racist ideas are transformed by them. No one starts out racist. No one has a racist core. That can be so hard to remember, or accept, when some folks are so loudly fucking racist. But it also gives us the slimmest sliver-shred of hope: If they are not made of poison, then perhaps they can still be unpoisoned.

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Part of my American work might be to actively believe in the promise of this country that its most marginalized residents, Black folks and trans folks and immigrants among them, see and create. That true solidarity means making the sometimes Herculean-feeling effort to create it right along with the most hopeful among them. Hope is a verb, a friend pointed out to me recently. It takes effort.

I heard it as a responsibility passed to me when Booker said to Jackson, “You faced insults here that were shocking to me—well, actually not shocking,” and also when he talked about an exceptional love for this country and told her, “You are here because of that kind of love,” and also when he again made me sob as he told her, of those shocking and also not shocking insults, “It’s not going to stop. They’re going to accuse you of this and that… but don’t worry, my sister. Don’t worry. God has got you. And how do I know that? Because you’re here. And I know what it’s taking, for you to sit in that seat.”

“This country’s getting better and better and better,” he said, and I was surprised to find I could almost believe him.

I struggle with language like “the greatest country in the world,” because exceptionalism sounds a lot like supremacy to me and that gets my hackles up, sets me on edge, on alert for danger, for tyranny. But better and better and better—I can hope for that. I can work toward that. Because greatest or not, it is my country.

I will confess that I still feel some embarrassment, or maybe it’s nervousness, at being so ardently, vocally hopeful—at being this earnest patriot. But anger and frustration and disappointment are not generative emotions, they are draining ones. So I’m committing to be part of that “we, the people” Langston Hughes wrote about who “must redeem.” I am going to do my best to help unpoison the “unsuspecting folks” who people like Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn prey on. And like Booker said, I am really going to work—to try—not to let the loudest, meanest voices steal my joy, or my country.