Coming home from a recent trip to the grocery store, I found myself stopped at a traffic light behind a woman in a dark green SUV. On the otherwise unadorned tailgate of her shiny Toyota, there was a bumper sticker that read, “Proud to be Scottish.” I was confused.
First, I do not often see driving performances that leave me with a higher opinion of whomever is driving. Thus, it seems folly to advertise one’s beliefs and/or origins on one’s vehicle. If some hippie cuts me off in his beat-up ’87 Corolla, I am way less likely to want to Coexist.
But the true source of my confusion was this:
How could the woman driving the Toyota in front of me be proud to be Scottish? I mean, I know how she could be proud of her heritage, in the sense that I understand, if only vaguely, how the human brain works. And I’m not Scot-bashing. What I’m after is logic. She didn’t choose to be of Scottish descent and it wasn’t something she had accomplished – being Scottish is not a prize for winning a foot race or a chili cook-off. She just is Scottish. (Or perhaps, her husband is Scottish. Or her parents were Scottish. Someone in that woman’s life is Scottish, anyway.) She didn’t do anything to become Scottish, unless there’s been an astounding breakthrough in gene therapy of which I’ve not been made aware.
It’s a question that has long bothered me: How do people explain their pride in something they didn’t actually do or accomplish?
I was born in Menlo Park, California. Soon after my birth, my parents decided that they’d had enough of nice weather and progressive thought, and moved to Northeast Kansas. A few years later, in first grade, our teacher asked each student in my class to talk about where they had been born and what that meant to them. Most of my classmates had, of course, been born in Topeka, Kansas, so the only way they had to differentiate themselves from one another was to report that they had been born at the hospital named after St. Francis, instead of the one named after some non-Catholic.
When it was my turn to announce the city of my birth, I took great pride in stating that I had been born in California. Suddenly, I was exotic. There was something different – something interesting – about me.
I’m sure the woman driving the car in front of me on Shawnee Mission Parkway was compelled to put a “Proud to be Scottish” sticker on her Toyota for a similar reason. Stuck in a homogeneous world, she was expressing her uniqueness.
I did the same thing. When I was six.
Now, before it comes off that I think I’m superior to the highlander in the Highlander, I should note that…I am. My ancestors are Irish.
I kid, of course. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing especially good – nothing to be especially proud of – about being from Irish stock. The Irish are known for such laudable traits as being temperamental, given to alcoholism, and for being susceptible to the deleterious effects of widespread potato famine.
I get that it is important to understand one’s origins. I’m sure I would’ve gotten a lecture on the subject had I confronted the woman in the Toyota. But I think “understanding of” and “pride in” are as different as asking about your girlfriend’s day and a jealous inquisition of her lunch with a boss.
Life gets tricky when “pride” gets involved. People kill each other over “pride”. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can basically be boiled down to “pride”. The people in those states are, for all intents and purposes, the same. Meaning that they’ve had to invent a reason to fight. There’s religion to fight about, of course, but even those religious beliefs have been tied into “I’m from here, you’re from there, and now I’m going to lob explosive devices at your family.”
In the United States, we haven’t yet progressed to warring over our places of birth. People from New Jersey don’t shoot rockets into New York City. Instead, they paint their faces green and cheer for the Jets when they play the Giants. (Or the other way around. I’m still not clear on the Jets/Giants thing.)
But we Americans are not above misplaced pride. In fact, in my experience, we’re among the most frequent abusers of it.
I see American flags everywhere. They’re on houses, at banks, and flown, in oversized grandeur, above car dealerships. Contrary to what is being displayed, proudly, as popular belief, this is not normal behavior in the rest of the world. The only countries that participate in such rampant jingoism are the ones that are painfully insecure about their status. North Korea, for example.
If I knock on the door at a random, American flag-flying house and ask the man who answers why he’s decorated his siding like he has, there is a pretty good chance he’ll say it’s because he’s “proud to be an American.” If I ask him why he’s proud, he’ll likely say it’s because he lives “in the best country on Earth”.
Of course, there’s no way to measure whether the United States is the “best country on Earth”, if only because such a thing is impossible to measure. It’s sort of like trying to name the best-looking woman on Earth — I might say “Bar Rafaeli” (or “Denmark”), you might say “Tori Praver” (or “Argentina”). Neither of us would be wrong, unless one us had said “Tori Spelling” or “Sudan”.
But whether the United States is the best country on the planet or the best place to live, period, or even the best place to get good barbecue (it is), is beside the point. The man in the house with the flag can’t be proud of something he didn’t accomplish. He can’t be proud to be American any more than he can be proud to breathe oxygen or proud to have a four-chambered heart.
To be fair, if the subject of my interview has a legitimate reason to be proud to be an American – if, for example, he immigrated here after a military junta had crushed his dreams in his native Chile, and he’d made the move only after diligent research, during which he’d carefully considered his options and had decided that, yes, the United States was the place he’d most like to call home – then he’d have every right to be “proud”. Just as a man with a faulty heart who learns tissue engineering and genetics and grows for himself his own heart can be proud to have a four-chambered one.
Because, you see, “pride” is, as defined, “pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by, or belonging to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself”. As in, I’ve accomplished something, now I’m proud of it. Being born in a particular location is not an accomplishment. Luck? Yes. Reason to celebrate? Maybe. But a point of pride? Absolutely not. Unless you’re six.
The problem, as I see it, is that pride in one’s homeland is no different from pride in one’s religion or pride in one’s skin color: these things do not a happy world make. The more pride people take in arbitrary characteristics, it seems, the more they want to fight about them.
Collectively, our pride – “our” being “American” in this case – often manifests itself in reactionary views toward Arabs or Asians. Individually, it bares its teeth in a person’s intolerance of races and religions.
I’m tempted to write that, so far, this hasn’t been a problem in the US. We haven’t engaged in genocide; nor have we gone to war against Canada. But then I think about how we’re viewed in the world. I think about what it’s like to live in other countries, where my friends would say, “Why is your country so insecure? Do you see Greek flags adorning grocery stores here?” The answers were: I don’t know, and, no.
As pride applies to friendly arguments in bars, sure, let’s have it. If the woman in the Toyota and I had met at a St. Patrick’s Day parade, we could have compared notes and realized that being from Scottish stock and being from Irish stock are basically the same thing: completely meaningless.
The problem is when pride leads to caving in heads with stones. And, unless I’m mistaken, no one likes to have his head caved in with a stone. That’s not to say that having pride in one’s origin necessarily leads to a terminal head injury. It’s just that it’s a slippery slope. Pride in “being white” led to the Ku Klux Klan. Pride in “being from France” led to The 100 Years War. Pride in “being an alien” led Marvin the Martian to challenge a team of cartoons led by Michael Jordan to an on-court grudge match. And (Space Jam spoiler alert!) we all know how that turned out.
Unfortunately, in the US, it may be too late to stop the advancement of the “Proud to Be” army. This need to express our “pride” has become so ingrained – so much the unbidden, in-born right of every American – that I fear what the consequences might be, someday. I hope that people can learn to save their pride for non-arbitrary characteristics: a life saved or a child parented. But I have my doubts.
My fears could be unfounded. Maybe the collective emotional state of our country will be returned to normal, and people will use logic and sense to decide their viewpoints. But until that happens, you’ll see me shaking my head every time I see an American flag on a non-governmental building. And laughing at every bumper sticker expressing undue satisfaction in Scottish ancestry.
And making fun of the idiot who carries around a key ring adorned with his Irish middle name and the coat of arms to match.
Oh wait, that would be me.