"We'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way." So goes the lyric in country singer Toby Keith's post-Sept. 11 hit, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." And while this line, like many others in the song, strikes a chord with the cruder forms of patriotism, listeners can't be blamed for thinking that Keith is on to something here--that kicking ass (with bombs more than boots) is what the United States is best at nowadays.
Is that all this nation can brag about? Is that what it's been reduced to? Not entirely, of course, but a new book suggests we've lost a lot, because patriotism was once a more complicated and debated notion, one that held vastly more meaning than the sort on display in both Keith's revenge ditty and the Bush administration's increasingly imperial military posture. The Lost Promise of Patriotism, by Boston University history professor Jonathan M. Hansen, sports a July 4 release date and comes at a prime time for citizens pondering the state of the nation and the purposes driving these United States at home and abroad.
In an extensively detailed history, Hansen frames the political discourse in the years 1890-1920 around the philosophers and organizers who argued that whatever it was that made the country great--or potentially great--was firmly rooted in progressive values like economic, gender and racial equality. The sort of values, today's cynics can justly argue, that receive little but lip service from politicians devoted to advancing power and profit.
In fact, today's patriotic stump speeches, while sharply bellicose, seem constrained, timid and visionless when compared to the voices that argued for a patriotism focused on social justice and the rights of all the disparate populations in the United States. Hansen explains that such voices, Eugene Debs, Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois chief among them, promoted a "cosmopolitan patriotism" that stressed "civic courage" at home and the need for peaceful, reciprocal exchanges with other countries. Citing provisions of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other bedrocks of American democracy, Hansen notes, these patriots tried, and ultimately largely failed, to construct an alternative and sustainable definition of national identity.
Why did they fail? Hansen identifies many causes, but it's clear that the cosmopolitan patriots saw many of their hopes dashed on the rocks of war. As the United States moved to effectively annex Cuba and the Philippines at the turn of the century, the ship of state set out on a martial path it follows to this day. U.S. involvement in the first World War cemented a nationalist fervor and flag-fetishism tied to war, as calls for blind unity crowded out a more pluralistic approach to national identity.
Debates about the meaning of patriotism are sorely limited today, but the sparks of earlier ones still ignite division and discussion; after all, sales of "Peace is Patriotic" bumper stickers have shot up just as surely as angry war songs have climbed the charts. While the United States at times seems locked into what Hansen calls "the current reduction of patriotism to militarism," he makes a good case for revisiting an era in which many definitions of patriotism were in play. His book will help recover some lost history, and perhaps some of the long-lost dialogue about just what constitutes a healthy national pride. --Jon Elliston
Pop quiz: Why is Osama bin Laden so mad? Which countries still maintain slavery? What little box provoked Hutus to kill Tutsis? What country's counterfeits forced the United States to redesign the $100 bill? Why is Kashmir "the most dangerous place in the world"? In What Every American Should Know, award-winning journalist Melissa Rossi provides a resource guide to current events, foreign affairs, politics and history. Divided into "Tickers," "Slow Tickers," "Talkers" and "The Big Picture," the book's simple and entertaining format explores countries, continents and conflicts, both near and far. "Fast Facts," a chapter primer, outlines population, literacy rates, exports, leaders, religion, etc., "Quick Tour" navigates mountains, terrains and settlements, while "Hot Spots" pinpoints massacres and landmines, and locates violence-prone areas. In the chapter on Colombia, we learn that the literacy rate is 91.3 percent, unemployment 20 percent, murder rate--13 times higher than that of the United States; Rossi also includes an interesting tidbit in "Rumors": "The Brazilian press reports that a plan is under way for a U.N.-led force to invade Colombia in 2004, using South American and U.S. troops to aid the Colombian Army." Overall, Rossi's book is an enjoyable read, which will have you dropping global history, key players and political facts in no time. And although she does slip up and refer to Africa as a "country" as opposed to a "continent" on page 299, her information-laden book ultimately passes the test. As for the answers to the pop-quiz above--go buy your own copy! --olufunke moses