The late, great, Georgia-born comedian Bill Hicks was once asked if he was proud to be an American. He cracked that he didn’t really have much to do with it: “My parents fucked there… I can’t stand patriotism. It’s a round world last time I checked, OK?” And yet he also argued that since he thoroughly criticized pretty much everything about American life, it was actually he who was the true patriot.
Despite the absolutist terms often applied to it, patriotism is pretty arbitrary. The location of your birth, which after all nobody has any say in, doesn’t obligate anyone to automatically support whatever country, government, or national mythology might exist wherever they happen to be. Patriotism, in its best form, is a moral choice, and like any decision its integrity hinges on the critical thinking involved.
In Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism, historian Ben Railton demonstrates just how arbitrary. Examining the varying forms that American patriotism can take, reminding us that patriotic words and deeds are more complex than they are often treated, Railton informatively argues that patriotism can be a challenge to the status quo. Applying your own experience, values, and ideals gradually reshapes your country’s narrative about itself, especially if you’re challenging its essential principles and myths, and questioning your own part in them.
What’s most important about patriotism isn’t that you engage in it, it’s how and why. The chauvinistic form of patriotism—my country, or my image of my country, right or wrong—has been weaponized in our recent political discourse and used as a catch-all term to try and get away with whatever you wanted to do anyway. It’s important that we have a historically nuanced and informed reminder that patriotism isn’t always what the powers that be want it to be. Patriotism is also an assumption about what the country is supposed to represent that often runs counter to the officially sanctioned narrative.
Railton breaks down the different forms of patriotism into four distinct groups. There’s celebratory, the communal expression of an idealized nation; mythic, where you create specific stories about the country (often excluding women and people of color); active, encouraging service and sacrifice for the nation; and critical, which is pointing out the difference between the country’s ideals and its reality.
It’s worth remembering that the Constitution was and, in some ways, still is a radical document. It’s doubtful that many so-called conservatives would even vote for it if it were newly proposed today. It checks off each box in Railton’s list: demanding a fundamental change in the relationship with a major world power, offering an outline for how a new country is supposed to govern, and providing a philosophical basis for its highest goals. The most patriotic way to think about the Constitution is not to cite it as a kind of inviolate Ten Commandments but as a work in perpetual progress, evolving through criticism and debate. Pointing out when we fall short of delivering on its exalted promises helps us build towards a more perfect union.
It’s painful but necessary to see how much of American history is about deciding who’s in and who’s out. The hysterical nativism and xenophobia coursing through our airwaves these days is nothing new; it’s merely a continuation of the previous attempts to define who gets to be an American in the first place. Woodrow Wilson, who enjoyed watching D.W. Griffith’s Klan-starring The Birth of a Nation more than anyone should, ominously warned in a 1915 State of the Union address about those “born under other flags” who “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life” and how they should be penalized to “save the honor and self-respect of the nation.”
Sometimes the racial paranoia contained a class element. The Palmer Raids that came a few years later targeted unions and particularly those made up of recent immigrants, who were the very definition of hard-working communities trying to make it in the New World. Attempting to squash labor organizing while rumbling about “the foreign element” who brought hard-won European traditions of labor rights and due process, some elected officials were more than happy to stoke the Red Scare, braying “this is America—not Russia… the time has come for people to show their Americanism.” Then as now, dissent about economic exploitation is treated like nascent anarchy or hatred of America itself, as if demanding fair treatment for one’s labor was by definition un-American.
In light of this propagandistic chest-thumping, it’s interesting to see that the Pledge of Allegiance was published in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Boston-based Christian Socialist, who sought to “wed his spirituality and ministry to radical arguments and activisms that challenged many Gilded Age American realities and worked to move the nation closer to its founding ideals of liberty and equality.” Bellamy intended that reciting the pledge would help instill the rights that every American is entitled to as a part of their daily routine. Many of the social advances over the past hundred years came from people whose sense of what it means to be an American probably wouldn’t get them elected today. Which doesn’t mean they weren’t patriotically motivated—if anything, it’s evidence that their patriotic instincts ran deeper than the standard issue pablum.
Railton usefully cites many American artists and writers who critically and creatively reframed what it meant to be a part of a country that doesn’t make room for you. When Nina Simone sang “Don’t tell me/ I’ll tell you/ Me and my people just about due” in the rousing “Mississippi Goddamn” Railton explains that her patriotism was both critical and active, fiercely mixed into an outraged lament for secondary status. Langston Hughes understood plenty about the painful contradictions of American life, but he was generous and hopeful enough to title a poem “Let America Be America Again” and include the hopeful line “America will be!” That exuberant exclamation point patriotically suggests that essential American principles can still be fought for, and won, even when he fully admits that “America never was America to me.”
In an email exchange with The Daily Beast, Railton, who teaches history at Fitchburg State in Massachusetts, talked about the different uses and abuses of patriotism, the legacy of the Constitution, and what makes people patriotic.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve been thinking about the concept of critical patriotism for a long time, starting with blog posts around the New England-specific holiday Patriots’ Day, and then building into my analyses of critical patriotic novels in my fourth book. For at least a decade I’ve felt that we desperately need to add this alternative vision of patriotism into our collective understanding of the term, and want to make the case for that in its own project.
But it was really the rise of Trump, and specifically the phrase “Make America Great Again” (as a follow-up to the anti-Obama narrative “I want my country back!” which I’ve been trying to figure out for a good while now) that helped me see the resurgence of the exclusionary form of patriotism that I came to call mythic patriotism. Realizing that this white supremacist vision was also relying on a particular narrative of patriotism allowed me to start thinking about the book’s central contrast, between mythic and critical patriotisms—and to want to trace that duality and battle across American history.
The book contains lots of brief profiles about very different historical figures. Were there any stories that surprised you when you dug into them a little bit deeper?
Lots of stories and histories were surprising to me, and I would put them in two different categories. One would be when I learned a good deal more about figures with whom I had some familiarity already. A good example of that would be Woodrow Wilson: I knew his fraught relationship to race (such as segregating the federal government), but I didn’t know about the ways in which he argued for mythic patriotism and exclusionary attitudes toward immigrant Americans in making the case for the Espionage and Sedition Acts (years before Congress passed them). Wilson’s description, in his 1915 State of the Union address, of immigrants as “pouring the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life” is one of the most succinct connections of mythic patriotism to xenophobic arguments, and I was very surprised to learn about that side of his presidency.
The other category were figures I hadn’t known about at all and learned about for this project. A good example of that is Susie King Taylor, an escaped slave who became a nurse for United States Colored Troops regiments during the Civil War. Both that work and her post-war, lifelong advocacy for Civil War nurses and USCT veterans alike embody active and critical patriotism, challenging the period’s dominant narratives and making the case for the service and sacrifice of these vital American communities. Her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp… (1902), is one of my favorite sources that I found.
What do you think inspires people to be patriotic? Is it wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves, is it about vicarious identification, is it about pride? What do you think stokes people's patriotic fires?
It’d be easy, and not entirely wrong, to critique those patriotic impulses as related to what I would call chauvinistic nationalism (as a parallel to exclusionary mythic patriotism): a sense that our nation is better than others, and a corresponding us vs. them narrative that helps us feel like we are part of that exceptional community. I do think that trend exists and needs to be critiqued, not least because in American history it is consistently tied to white supremacist visions of the nation.
But one of my central goals for the book is to separate celebratory from mythic patriotism, and to make the case that the former has real communal value, can genuinely include all Americans, in contrast with those exclusionary mythic visions. I believe we do want to be proud of our defining communities, whether it’s a workplace, a family, a city or region, or a nation. And I think participating in collective celebrations of such communities helps us feel that we belong to something bigger, helps us reflect on our own ideals and values, and creates ties to those around us in meaningful ways. Celebratory patriotism has real value—but it can’t be based on exclusionary myths, and it has to allow for critique of what’s being celebrated (which mythic patriotism isn’t able to do).
Do you think that any one of the forms of patriotism that you discuss in the book is especially prevalent these days? Or are they all constantly in play?
As I mentioned above, it was the resurgence of mythic patriotism, first in anti-Obama phrases like “I want my country back” and then most fully and potently through MAGA and the rise of Trump, that really inspired me to write this book. None of these forms has ever gone away, but at various moments mythic patriotism in particular has re-emerged—the 1910s and 1920s were one such moment, and a century later, we’ve seen a similar resurgence, and an even more blatant connection of it to a president/administration, his supporters, and their visions of the nation.
Yet at the same time, and not coincidentally, I would also argue that critical patriotism has resurged quite potently over these last few years. There’s a reason I put Colin Kaepernick on my book’s cover—to me he is one of the most exemplary critical patriots in decades, and it’s quite telling that he began his protests in the summer of 2016, just a couple months before Trump’s election. Similarly, the summer of 2020 featured, in the #BlackLivesMatter protests, another moment of profound critical patriotism, just as mythic patriotism built toward its own expressions in and after the election (and through the Jan. 6 insurrection).
When you’re talking about the Constitution, I’m glad that you bring up the fact that even though it's obviously profoundly flawed, it’s still a radical document, especially for its time. I wonder if the change in the founders’ reputations over time has something to do with a different attitude towards patriotism.
A big part of why I want to make the case for critical patriotism is that it offers a way to recognize and celebrate the nation’s ideals while allowing for—indeed, requiring—criticism of where and how we’ve fallen short of those ideals. As James Baldwin put it so eloquently, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Moreover, I believe the founders themselves would, at their best, demand that we criticize the nation (and the Constitution) just as much as we celebrate it, and that indeed the criticism is a vital part of helping push the nation closer toward those ideals.
One of many problems with mythic patriotism is that it presents these things as either-or: Either we celebrate a mythic vision of the founders or we’re simply criticizing them in anti-American ways. For too long, we’ve all bought into that definition of patriotism, and so those of us who would be more critical about the founders, the Constitution, and the nation have agreed that we’re not patriotic, that we oppose patriotism, that we have to simply tear down those histories instead. But if we remember the legacy of critical patriotism, then we can see that critiquing the founders (while celebrating the best of what the Constitution and founding feature) is as patriotic as it gets and can help us live up to our ideals, and move closer toward that more perfect union in the future.