I was born and raised in the Netherlands but I have lived in the US for over 20 years and got dual citizenship a few years ago. I love my birth country and my adopted country, and my ideal self is fully Dutch and fully American. The reality of straddling two cultures, however, is that you are no longer one and never fully the other. It manifests itself in countless small ways. When I meet new people, for example, they invariably ask me where I’m from because I immigrated too late in life to shake my accent. Yet when I visit family in Holland, sooner or later someone will poke fun at my alleged American accent. I don’t believe it but then who am I to judge anymore? I don’t hear my Dutch accent either.
Because of this dual perspective, though, I think I’m qualified to offer a few comments on this most American of all holidays, the Fourth of July, aka Independence Day, which celebrates America’s hard-fought transformation from colony to sovereign nation.
Europeans are often bemused by what they perceive as the over-the-top patriotism of Americans. Judging from conversations I’ve had, this comes across on occasion as gauche, childlike boastfulness. The flag-flying, the pledge of allegiance recited by elementary school students, the national anthem sung at every high school game; it all seems a bit … excessive to European sensibilities, reminiscent, perhaps, of more sinister expressions of nationalism they fought not many decades ago.
A dear Dutch friend of mine visited me in California right after 9/11 and she was puzzled by the fact that so many people, including me, had flag stickers on their cars; what was the point, she wondered? I had a hard time verbalizing the reason at the time, and the best I could come up with was “solidarity”. Of course it was more than that; yes, it was solidarity in the sense of “I am hurting with you, I wish I could do more to help, our prayers are with you”, but the deeper solidarity was based on what the flag stands for, that we would be d****ed if this attack was going to cause us to give up the ideals that symbol represents.
Why did we display those flags?
Because “… the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air — gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…”
Still there, terrorists!
“Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave — o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”
Because we know the words to that song, and more than that, because we know the words to our history.
Symbols are a powerful and effective way to communicate philosophies that take a long time to explain, and that is why we respond so strongly to them. They are a shortcut to the heart. Nevertheless, the ideas expressed in words come first, because that is what we are really responding to via the conduit of the symbol:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
- America is not the only nation based on the ideals of liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness. It has been extremely effective, however, in formulating and communicating these ideals. Every school child has either memorized these words or is at least familiar with them, and so the symbols representing these words do not stand for knee-jerk nationalism but rather for very specific ideas. America has stumbled in many ways, as evidenced in Dr. King’s famous speech. But the very fact that this speech is now part of our national consciousness suggests that despite the chaos of history lived by imperfect people, we keep returning to these ideals.
- When we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” we are not thinking about how wonderful we are, because we’re not. In fact, when you get past the cultural loudness and bluster, most Americans are prone to second-guessing themselves and are only too aware of the “ugly American” stereotype. We are not thinking about Washington or Lincoln or other “great” Americans because we know they were subject to human failings and hypocrisy like we all are. What we are responding to is the words behind the symbols, and the ideals behind those words we know so well.
Freedom and human dignity are not American inventions; they are the cry of humanity, expressed particularly effectively at one point by some immigrants to another continent.
So just for today, restrain your irritation with American exuberance and instead, join us in being thankful for the life and liberty we enjoy, and take a moment to remember those who don’t.
To Liberty and Justice for All