I recently discovered this passage from Mark Twain's posthumously published Letters from the Earth. This book is work picking up and reading in its entirety; I have rarely been so moved by such heartfelt and beautiful cynicism and sarcasm. It is called "Two Fragments from a Suppressed Book Called "Glances at History" or "Outlines of History". The fragments are included with the "Papers of the Adam Family". One segment in particular caught my attention:
For in a republic, who is “the Country”? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant—merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey order, not originate them. Who, then, is “the Country”? Is it the newspaper? Is it the pulpit? Is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.
Who are the thousand—that is to say, who are “the Country”? In a monarchy, the kind and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to you country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country—hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.
I find myself thinking, this 4th of July, about patriotism. On occasion, I have found myself at the wrong end of popular opinion about what the word means, and whether it applies to me, and whether I would ever want to be thought of as a "patriot". I don't get along with the flag-pin crowd. To the extent that I experience patriotism, it's an adversarial kind, the "kicking the tires" version whereby I don't automatically trust the people around me or agree with people because it's the "patriotic" thing to think or do.
With that in mind, on my own Facebook yesterday, I posted the following:
I'm not proud to be an American, but I am proud to be in a country where I am not legally required to be proud to be an American. I am proud to live in a place in which I am far less likely to be killed for who I am and what I think than I would be in a fair (albeit admittedly shrinking) percentage of the world. I am proud to live in a country where only slightly more or less half of the population on any given day doesn't think I have the right to exist, and I am proud that I live in a country where I can tell those people to fuck off and eat a bowl of dicks while dying in a fire. That is what is best about living in America. It's what makes us (almost) great and mostly tolerable.
America is not actually all that great, but saying that is kindof my litmus test: as long as I am able to criticize this country and participate in it and engage in public dialogue and challenge the government and the citizenry, then America is at least still moving more or less forward, and that's something to be proud of. I am proud that I don't have to like you people, and my patriotism is rooted in the fact that I *don't* have to wave a flag around and declare that I have no problem with my government or my neighbors. Freedom means I can tell you where to stick your fake patriotic lapel pins and you can't have me put to death outright for it, and *that* is something to be proud of.