America is a state that has been founded on the principles of religious tolerance, democracy, and an infallible sense of justice, or, rather, it would be if we could stop making the mistake of attempting to form a true national identity that is based on specific racial, ethnic, or religious precepts. In our times, the desire for nationally identity is becoming, as Zinn said, a great scourge for our country. Broadly speaking, within the last decade, a surge of nationalism has taken over great swaths of America: the couple who sits on their back deck, shotguns in hand “defending” our southern border from would-be immigrants; the thirteen year old boy shouting “Go home!” to his hijab wearing classmate; the stares young black men receive walking down the street in areas they are deemed too risque to be; all this stems from the gnawing, ugly face of white, evangelical suburbanites and their desire for a single, hegemonic national identity.
Like many things, the politic is where this cancer derives itself from. A brief reflection on any of the past campaign promises within the last half century can prove this. Trickle down economics, stronger borders, more funding for our military, isolationism and protectionism as a centerpiece for most right wing policy agendas – which isn’t to say the left does not engage in the same egregious behavior, simply that they mask it much better. Simply put, however, continuing this struggle for a singular identity, in a country that can be anything but, will ultimately lead down a path of self-destruction.
I find it important to, at this moment, posit a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Patriotism is a sense of pride in one’s country that encourages constant devotion to better one’s home state. Patriotism is why we pay such respect to the many soldier who gave their lives defending our freedoms and liberties, to appreciate the basic freedoms we are provided, and acknowledge how lucky we are to have them, considering how many other states do not enshrine or place such importance on free speech, religious tolerance, and other democratic values. Patriotism is birthed not from the nation, but from the state and the exchanges the citizenry participate in on a daily basis: workers in the body politic living their lives, using craft and companionship to mold a more free, more egalitarian society. Nationalism, conversely, is born from the decisive wedge that is ethno-national identity. This identity becomes volatile when it takes on a very real “us vs them” narrative. Take, for instance, the persecution and violence that has marred the relations between the Kurdish and most states in the Middle East. Ascribing certain traits to either places an albatross on peaceful dialogue. A bomb goes off in Ankara and the attacker was from a Kurdish region, so clearly the Kurds hate Turkey. The Turkish then retaliate by bombing a Kurdish village, and so clearly the Turkish hate the Kurds. These tit-for-tat exchanges are built upon national identities feeling it necessary to become the most “dominant”.
Thus, one should be wary of any populist using national identity to capitalize on an election year. When phrases like “America First” and “Make America Great Again” start to get tossed around, or more so, become paradigms in one’s culture, it should be a warning sign of what’s to come. Nationalism is, and has been, a divisive tool for any person attempting to take power on a wave of hatred. It is not uniquely American or German. Herzl’s Jewish State was a powerful statement on the necessity of providing the Jews with a true home, and like Athena from Zeus, Jerusalem sprung from the battle scarred head of the Jewish people, who had been pushed by the winds of war far from their home.
Yet American nationalism, the sentiment that has given rise to chants of “build that wall” and sparked a flurry of antisemitism and Islamophobia across the states since November 9, 2016, is especially toxic, as it ignores the inherently pluralistic nature of America. A country that was founded by those seeking religious freedom, incorporated by those seeking democracy and representation, and advanced by the many statesmen, artists and authors, and inventors that sought to build a truly great state, and cannot self-implode in constructing for itself a singular national identity based on a specific race, religion, or ethnicity. America has progressed to far to take such a massive step backwards. The Great Melting pot has seen the many other national identities which have entered this great nation already congeal and blend into the beautiful state we live in now. If we stop this process, from where shall our culture blossom?
It’s time we stopped erasing history and culture, stop demanding a single identity for our country, stopped claiming Lady Liberty holds her choice for one chosen people. America is a land of many, a bastion of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and identities that are both singular in expression, yet plural in combination. A paradox that can work if we disarm the hate behind nationalistic identity.
To avoid the downfall of our society, we must come together, as one American people.