Last night, I sat on my deck watching explosions of fireworks in the deep distance and hearing the faint percussive thuds of the remote blasts. The air was hot and muggy, defining July in central Arkansas (and much of my home state of Texas). I grilled hot dogs for dinner, playing homage to American tradition, but my post-dinner libation of choice was a gin and tonic; homage to my British ancestry.
As I sat pondering American Independence Day and feeling appreciation for the good fortune of being born in this country, images from my computer screen appeared in my mind’s eye. The images, from the attacks on Dhaka and Baghdad, reminded me that battles arising from hatred and greed and lust for power are just as horrific as battles for freedom. But no moral justification exists for the former. The fight for freedom, though, that’s steeped in morality. Or is it?
I suppose the answer depends on the costs freedom fighters and their beneficiaries are wiling to pay for their successes. When my British forebears and their compatriots came to this continent, economic and political freedoms drove their emigration from their homeland. Their fight for independence, which gave us our own, seems to us now as just and moral. But what of their expansive appetites for more? More land, more control over indigenous peoples…just more. That voracious appetite and its genetic imprint that morphed into an imperialist move westward and then, later, globally, got us where we are today. So, on the one hand, we owe our society’s standing in the world and our standard of living to our ancestors’ fight for freedom. On the other, we owe our largess to our ancestors’, and our own, inclinations toward imperialism and their/our disregard for the rights of peoples who were here before us.
Lest anyone who happens upon this post think I am a bleeding-heart liberal who’s ashamed of being an American, let me correct that impression. I am a bleeding-heart liberal who’s most definitely proud to be an American, but one who believes our tendency to beat our chests and the drums of nationalism ought to be restrained. I am a bleeding-heart liberal who thinks we ought to acknowledge the moral failings that got us where we are today. I am a bleeding-heart liberal who thinks we should temper our desires for “more” with a pledge to avoid making the same moral mistakes our forebears made.
Nationalism or chauvinism or whatever you choose to call blind, unquestioning patriotism is a disease of the intellect. It cripples rational thought and brews intolerance and bigotry and xenophobia. Or is it the other way around? Does a crippled intellect give rise to the aforementioned ills? I do not have the answer, but I suspect a symbiotic relationship exists between zealotry of any stripe and underdeveloped intellectual capacity. Yet as I give thought to what might “fix” the problem of blind patriotism and its cousins, I get back to inferior intellect as their breeding ground. If that’s the case, then, education might be the answer; unless, of course, intellectual dwarfism cannot be cured by exposure to facts or critical thinking.
Contemplating the ugliness I see on the world stage cements my perception that bigotry is and fanaticism are not just American phenomena. The disease is not geo-specific; it resides wherever humans go. I see-saw between hope and pride in the best I see in American and, indeed, global society and despair in what I see as an intractable element of humanity. Looking back at literature over the centuries, I see that same dichotomy between optimism and despondency. So, my emotional conflict is by no means new, nor mine alone. But I just wish there were a cure for the ignorance that seems to serve as a petri dish for pestilent strains of misunderstanding.
There I go again, wishing. That, too, is a disease; borne by ineffectual or non-existent efforts to bring about change.