A Classic Ode To America

From an immigrant from Britain, on this Independence Day:

George Orwell wrote admiringly of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy” that “it would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep.’” Coming from a family with deep roots in the military, I had certainly never made mock of uniforms or of the people who wore them. But I had taken them for granted. I’d taken everything for granted.

I quickly realized that the West’s position was the product of concrete choices and explicit sacrifices. Before September 11, it had never occurred to me that the stability of global trade, international peace, and the integrity of transnational communications were in some regard the product of a naval supremacy that the United States silently inherited from the British. It had never occurred to me that the world would look dramatically different if another country or axis enjoyed this power, and that it was in my interest to ensure that this never happened. I had never considered, in other words, the importance of the Pax Americana. From now on, I would never forget it.

Neither, until when, three years later, I took a course in British colonial history at Oxford, did I have much of an idea as to quite how exceptional and extraordinary the United States was in world history. Reading through all the documents that I could find, I quickly gained an appreciation for the classical liberalism of which I had never quite realized I was an adherent. It is no exaggeration to say that, discovering the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, and the men who, in Frederick Douglass’s immortal words, “preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage,” I felt as the heathens of old must have when they discovered the Bible. This, this was my cause — not all that teenage fluff.

I was hooked. However vehemently my leftist friends tried to relegate the virtue of a nation to the sum of its spreadsheets, the fact remains that the United States is the only country in the world that was founded explicitly on a proposition, and that in consequence has a set of values to which it can return and to which its immigrants may hew. The Declaration of Independence, Chesterton wrote, is “perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.”

…F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Swimmers” that

France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

The “idea” is obvious — it is written down in one place, accessible for all to see. The “willingness of the heart” stuff, however, is where things start to get trickier — where things, you might say, become “harder to utter.” Being asked to explain why I love America is sometimes like being asked to explain why I love my fiancée. There are all the tangible things that you can rattle off so as not to look clueless and sentimental and irrational. But then there is the fact that you just do, and you ultimately can say little more than that.

I don’t know why I love the open spaces in the Southwest or Grand Central Terminal or the fading Atomic Age Googie architecture you see sometimes when driving. I don’t know why merely glimpsing the Statue of Liberty brings tears to my eyes, or why a single phrase on an Etta James or Patsy Cline record does what it does to me. It just does. I have spoken to other immigrants about this, and I have noticed that there is generally a satisfactory explanation — religious freedom, the chance at self-expression, the country’s size — and then there is the wistful stuff that moistens the eyes. Show me a picture of two canyons, and the fact that one of them is American will make all the difference. Just because it is American. Is this so peculiar? Perhaps.


[Update a few minutes later]

On this Fourth of July, why have we lost our patriotism?

I’m not sure “we” have. Based on polls I see, it’s mostly (as usual) Democrats.

[Via Ed Driscoll, who has more related links]

[Update a couple minutes later]

Related to the first link: The joys of London on Independence Day.

[Afternoon update]

Sara Hoyt: And our flag was still there.

[Update a few minutes later]

More thoughts from Sara, on Robert Heinlein, a writer for America.

6 thoughts on “A Classic Ode To America”

    1. Every 4th we give the Declaration of Independence a lot of deep thought and discussion, but we almost never focus on King George’s obvious retort. “Going independent? Oh, the hell you are!”

  1. Patriotism, much like negative feelings toward Marxism, died in the Democrat party with Kennedy.

    1. On the contrary. Democrats are at least as patriotic now as they were in Kennedy’s time. There is the minor detail that the patria about which they are “otic” is never the United States. Usually, it’s someplace in Europe.

  2. If found it interesting that the first living person Trump mentioned in his Independence Day speech, after the usual introductions and once he was reeling off our nation’s history and accomplishments, was Gene Kranz.

    Video of the speech

    “Our quest for greatness unleashed a culture of discovery that led Thomas Edison to imagine his light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell to create the telephone, the Wright brothers to look to the sky and see the next great frontier. For Americans, nothing is impossible.

    Exactly 50 years ago this month, the world watched in awe as Apollo 11 astronauts launched into space with a wake of fire and nerves of steel and planted our great American flag on the face of the moon. Half a century later, we are thrilled to have here tonight the famed NASA flight director who led mission control through that historic endeavor, the renowned Gene Kranz.


    *renewed applause*

    Gene, I want you to know that we’re going to be back on the moon very soon and someday soon we will plant the American flag on Mars. It’s happening, Gene. It’s happening.”


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