2013-09-10

Proud To Be an American?

I know that I stand in, and speak from, a place of enormous privilege. I have:
  • white privilege,
  • male privilege,
  • straight privilege,
  • able-bodied privilege,
  • citizenship-in-the-country-whose-military-has-the-greatest-destructive-capacity-in-the-world privilege,
  • more-than-three-generations-removed-from-the-immigrant-experience privilege,
  • Protestant (by cultural heritage if not by current faith) privilege,
  • middle-class privilege,
  • economic privilege, and
  • educational privilege, both in terms of the privilege of having had easy access to all levels of education and the privileges of being educated.
It’s a level of privilege that is remarkable, that is undeserved, and is unfair. I would gladly surrender it for a more just world, if I could, but that doesn't seem to be an option. For the short-term, at least, I'm stuck with this load of privilege. So my question is: how do I put this tremendous privilege to best use? Living from a sense of noblesse oblige probably isn’t it. So what, then? How do I use my privilege to advance the dismantling of my privileges?

From my position of privilege, it’s easy for me to say I don’t have any more need for pride. Indeed, it is one of my privileges that my life situation allows me the luxury of preferring humility and gratitude. I don’t mean that I’m successful at achieving these virtues. I just mean that humility and gratitude for others looks a lot more appealing to me than does pride and credit-taking. The fact that I don’t have to fight daily for recognition and respect has a lot to do with that. I know that if I’m not heard for what I wanted to say, almost always it is because I wasn’t very skillful in saying it, not because of pre-existing doubts about my worthiness to be listened to. There are others who don’t have that privilege, who exhort themselves and their peers to pride as a necessary bulwark against social forces and conditions that denigrate who they are.

Some of the exhortations to pride are a matter of people doing what they need to do to claim their due. Other such exhortations, however, are apologetics for arrogance. On the one hand, pride in being LGBT, African American, or Latino/Latina is important and valuable. On the other hand, pride in being American is a bit different. It’s understandable if you’ve just been sworn in as a naturalized citizen. If, however, all four of your grandparents, both your parents, and you were born and raised on US soil, I don’t see the point.

Our national arrogance has been more problematic than whatever felt need is being addressed by proclaiming pride in being an American. Yes, we do need to know who we are, understand how our country and culture shape us, and understand the power and privileges that are at our disposal so we can deploy them with lovingkindness and compassion. Paying attention to all the things that being American means – the attitudes and the assumptions that we imbibe – is crucial to self-understanding. And, yes, the U.S. has done some good in the world. As a nation, we've also done some damaging things – both abroad and to many of our own people. Comedian Chris Rock captured the ambivalence when he said:
“If you’re black, America’s like the uncle that paid your way through college but molested you.”
Being either proud or ashamed of our country serves no point. The question is just, how to take the benefits Uncle Sam conferred and use them to stop the molestation. What are you going to do with the privileges of being American? Are you putting your inheritance to good use?

Too often, we haven’t been. Our national policies have arrogantly pursued what we thought was our own self-interest without regard to what damage we were doing to other peoples. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out:
“Great nations are too strong to be destroyed by their foes. But they can easily be overcome by their own pride.”
I turn again to Martin Luther King who warned against the vice of narrow national self-interest and the sin of unquestioning national pride:
“The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach and others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. . . . A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
Amen, Martin. Amen.
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This is part 29 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 5 on Pride)
Next: Part 30: "When Gratitude Replaces Pride"
Previous: Part 28: "Pride, the Hindrance"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"