Sometime around age sixteen, I pretty much gave up on patriotism. The accumulated weight of bearing witness to a senseless “pre-emptive” war, the travesty that was the Bush Administration, and listening to one-too-many Anti-Flag records combined to squash much appreciation for the country where I was born out of me. I wouldn’t say I was “anti-American”, but I certainly had lost faith in the myths of American exceptionalism drilled into me by public schooling and Boy Scouts. Not even my hopes of a future political career could keep me saying the Pledge of Allegiance or make me lip-synch to the National Anthem.
There were few things about the student body at Princeton that annoyed me more than some of my peers’ complacent, uncritical patriotism. A yearly confrontation with jingoism came every spring at Tower houseparties when, at some point during dinner, a group self-labelled “the assholes” would stand up and start chanting “USA! USA! USA!” Emboldened by my Mohawk and a half-bottle of wine, I would join my friends Devon and Jordan in some sort of inane counter-cheer (“Anarchy! Anarchy!” was a highly intellectual favorite).
I left for England safe and secure that I was a “different” sort of Yankee, the kind that avoided the brash nationalism for which Americans were, in my mind, known. I had all sorts of aspirations to show people that we weren’t all small minded, gun-toting, flag-waving yokels. What I discovered very quickly, though, is that—like it or not—I am very American. When I first arrived and people asked me where I was from, I would respond “The U.S.”, which would usually prompt, “Yes, I know. But what part?” Either through accent, or volume, or sheer gregariousness, people just seem to know that I am American.
Over time, I’ve learned to simply accept and appreciate it, and be unabashedly loud and friendly. Of course, my journey of changing national self-identification has been a bit more complex than just realizing that my lack of volume-control. In such an international climate as Oxford, many of our conversations revolve around simply describing where we come from. It’s in these moments that I realize my enthusiasm for the U.S.: I light up when I have a chance to describe the vast expanses of the Southwest, or have an opportunity to explain American marching bands, or even unwind the complexities of our system of government. While I always shy away from claiming that the U.S. is better than country X, I’m increasingly unafraid to offer up differences and say “Where I come from, we do it this way.”
I got a bit of a shock a few weeks ago at Boat Club Dinner, though. Towards the end of the night, it was announced that I was Worcester’s new Health and Safety Rep (a largely ceremonial position—I’m just hoping to get in on some undergraduate drama). On my way up, my English friends started chanting “USA! USA! USA!” For once, I didn’t feel any compunction to reply, but just took it as being appreciated for who I am and where I come from.
The World Cup is, of course, a time for all the nationalities of the world to join together in irrationally exuberant patriotism. My housemate Christoph told me the other day that the World Cup is the only occasion when Germans will display flags without fear of any connection to Nazism. Juxtaposed against Pride Week, I’ve been reminded that—pretensions to a universal humanity aside—we are creatures that appreciate being part of groups and communities. And, within the understanding that these groups reflect differences not hierarchies, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.
Nonetheless, when I sat down to watch the England-U.S. match, I wasn’t expecting it to be a great patriotic moment. The English grad students in the Worcester common room were clad head-to-toe in red and white, while I was wearing the only thing I own with an American flag on it—a Propagandhi t-shirt with a tattered flag below which was written, “Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes.” English people know that Americans don’t care about football, but don’t quite believe it: they peppered me with questions about the American team which I, not knowing the name of a single player, was ill-equipped to answer. The game was, for me, a chance to watch people getting excited—but not an opportunity to get excited myself.
Ninety minutes later, though, my heart was pounding. The U.S. was close to pulling England into a humiliating draw which, despite being likely to put my personal safety in jeopardy, would give me weeks of bragging rights. When the whistle was finally blown, the other Americans in the room and I lept to our feet in celebration. I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth:
“USA! USA! USA!”
– – – – –
Jukebox: Bob Dylan – Things Have Changed