True patriotism

Andrew Sullivan links to this video of NBA legend Maurice Cheeks, who, with a supportive crowd, comes to the aid of a young girl who falters while singing the national anthem:

Sullivan sees this as the American spirit at its best:

I love it because it really represents America. This experiment has never been easy, or its success foretold, as the questions of the anthem seem to illustrate. We have faltered, nearly given up, torn ourselves apart, segregated and murdered, boomed and busted more than a few times. The greatness of a nation lies not in some false narrative that you see in the Tea Party fantasists, the people who believe the Founding was intended to end slavery, rather than accommodate it, the people who see nothing but greatness and hegemony and pounce on all those who see flaws. It lies in a constant balancing of interests and ideas, and our collective response to failure. In this rendering, a black man rescues a white girl caught by nerves and close to collapse, and rallies her to the end, with the crowd. That’s a powerful symbol of America at its finest.

Indeed. Patriotism, true patriotism, is not jingoism, is not kneejerk pride, is not blindness to America’s flaws. To love this nation is to love a sick or struggling relative: you don’t ignore her troubles and pretend all’s well, but neither do you turn your back on her or proclaim her unworthy of your love. You stand by her and help her get better. You see her faults with clear eyes and love her in spite of them. You nurture her strengths. And you burst with quiet hope and pride at everything she is and everything you know she can be.

Sullivan also points out something I’d never really noticed before: that the key phrases in “The Star-Spangled Banner” come in the form of questions. “Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” It’s a note of uncertainty, almost, an acknowledgment that at some point the answer may well be No. As triumphal as the anthem seems, in other words, its final question — is this still true? is the American spirit intact? does the nation still mean what we want it to mean? — invites us constantly to interrogate ourselves, and to live up to the answer we want to give.


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