“I became an American citizen recently, and that night, we watched the Republican debate, and I thought, ‘This was a terrible mistake. What have I done?’” – Emily Blunt.
Unlike the actress Emily Blunt, I believe that there is no greater honor than to be able to say “I’m an American.”
Like Blunt, I’m an American who grew up in London. But I first realized the pure virtue of American patriotism while watching “The Sands of Iwo Jima” with my father. For me, the movie’s ending scene has always been especially powerful.
Having led his men through the Pacific Theater, Sergeant John Stryker (played by John Wayne) is killed by a Japanese sniper near the summit of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. Searching Stryker’s body, his men find a letter Stryker has written to his son in which he offers his regrets and his aspirations. To me, that letter is a metaphor for Americans: an imperfect but immensely courageous and decent people. Stryker’s men watch as the flag rises over Mount Suribachi. As the Marine Hymn plays, the Marines regroup and gather their strength. “All right, saddle up!” one shouts, “let’s get back in the war.” They march off into the fog and an unknown future.
That march into the fog is a metaphor for American exceptionalism. Remember, in just over one month of fighting on Iwo Jima, 6,821 Americans gave their lives. Moreover, in World War II, millions of young Americans like my grandfather faced the horror of war thousands of miles from home, and saved hundreds of millions of strangers from tyranny.
In showing me “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” my father wanted me to understand that patriotism takes root in both ideology and action.
Of course, many disagree. In Europe, for example, it’s fashionable to critique American patriotism as a means of control over ignorant masses. And to be fair, as in Nazi Germany, blind patriotism can be profoundly dangerous. Yet blindness has never defined and will never define American patriotism, for blind allegiance is the antithesis of American patriotism.
Instead, American patriotism rests on three unshakable foundations: belief in individual freedom, respect for our neighbors, and support for constitutional democracy. These foundations are not theoretical. They are displayed every time we have a heated disagreement, but still take satisfaction from individual beliefs. They are displayed every time we attend a sports game and meet opposing fans with spirited jeers, but not with fists. They are displayed every time we see, in the space of one second, a president transition from the world’s most powerful leader back to a normal citizen. Ultimately, these displays of belief are what bind us together and drive us forward as a people.
And those who doubt the purity and potential of patriotism need only look at the consequences of its absence. Europe, for example.
Today, in Europe, patriotism is under attack. That attack is led by a concerted leftist effort to eliminate national patriotism in favor of amorphous globalism. This week for example, in a service for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain — the battle that saved the U.K. from Nazi totalitarianism — the left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to sing the national anthem. Think on that ideological dysfunction: this isn’t just a major political leader refusing to take national pride sacrifices for freedom; it’s a leader confident he has sufficient support within his party to do so without rebuke. And Corbyn is right — the Labour Party is defending his decision.
Today, many in Europe believe the state is the encompassing center for national identity: that it is the state’s bureaucracy that binds citizens together. The UK’s celebration of the National Health Service at the 2012 Olympics offers a good example. Don’t get me wrong, NHS professionals are dedicated and highly skilled public servants (they saved my life as a child). But identifying the NHS as ‘British-ness’ proves the ideological stenosis with which patriotism is often regarded in Europe. After all, in both physical and ideological terms, government must not be the ideological master of a nation, but rather its servant.
The distinction is important. Where identifying ideals of national spirit are forgotten in favor of government agencies, national identity frays. Consider Europe’s failure to integrate immigrant communities.
Which brings us back to Emily Blunt, because the actress’s remarks prove her flawed understanding of American patriotism. Blunt mistakes politicians — representatives of government — for American identity. She assumes America is the sum of 20 candidates, rather than the living history of countless men and women. But Americans are not defined by our politicians. Their power is only a reflection of our variable will. Americans are ultimately defined by unshakeable ideals, driving us forward, into an unknown future.