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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Rockets' Red Glare

Overt acts of patriotism make me uncomfortable.

All that flag waving, unnecessary boasting, and talk of the superiority of American values and ways has driven me away from celebrating the Forth of July with any sort of style or substance for many years now.

(And this despite the fact that I really do think America is the best place in the world. I just don’t think it pays to brag about it.)

What is it about patriotism in America that is so distasteful – especially for the liberal-minded among us? I’ve thought a lot about that over the past years as I traveled the world and observed the equal levels of patriotism and pride with which other countries celebrate their national holidays.

The French boast about the superiority of their food, wine and culture on Bastille Day. Tanzanians celebrate peace, unity, and recent years of relative growth and prosperity on their national days. Just last week (July 1) I found myself in a bar in Dar surrounded by a bevy of Canadians celebrating Canada Day with “traditional” Canadian foods involving potatoes, gravy and cheese. (Yes, who knew there were traditional Canadian foods?)

But clearly these people haven’t gotten the memo. The America is the best. They can only hope to be as fabulous and free.


Last year I blogged about the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam’s 4th of July celebration for the American community and told you all about the interesting groups of Americans that can be found so far from home.

This year I managed to score invitations to TWO 4th of July parties!

Let me start with the second party, for the American community in Dar, which was held on the 6th of July and featured (for the second year) overcooked hamburgers and inedible hotdogs, but at least the bouncy castle stayed full of air and the company was good.

The highlights of the party were a US Marines vs. the American community tug-of-war (hmmm… is there a pun in here somewhere?), the dunking booth (when word got out that the head of CDC was in the booth I watched at least five people run across the lawn to get their turn at dunking him), and finally a pie-eating contest.

Why a pie-eating contest? Well… because as Americans living overseas we clearly don’t eat enough pie!

(Did I mention that there was a separate pie-eating contest for the kids? We start them binging early in America!)

Earlier in the week, in a clear sign that I’ve moved up in the pecking order in Dar over the past year, I received a formal invitation to the Ambassador’s official party for the diplomatic community which was actually held on the 4th. The organizers did a fabulous job beautifying the already impressive Embassy (fortress) grounds with giant (car bomb barriers) planters decorated in red, white and blue and Christmas lights. We were escorted up a red carpet to a formal receiving line consisting of the Ambassador, the head of USAID, the head of CDC and the Military Attache.

I felt so special and warm inside – like I was actually an important person.

Inside the Embassy garden was a cornucopia of color… people of every shade in costumes of every type. It was beautiful… like the whole world had joined America to celebrate our special day. The wine and samosas were flowing freely… the conversation was intriguing… and I thought it was going oh so well until (four beers into the evening) I leaned over to ask the Chinese Ambassador if it was he who had personally prepared the fireworks show.

He wasn’t particularly amused. Or rather, in the sober light of day, I like to think that the death look just meant that he just didn’t understand my question.

The whole event was beautiful – except for the awkward moment when the Tanzanian Foreign Minister (the Government of Tanzania’s official representative at the party) asked the group to toast to the health of “George Bush and the United States of America”. (Oh why the double toast?)

All the foreigners lifted their glasses. But most of the Americans (at least the ones I could see) looked around them awkwardly for a cue about how to handle the moment. It was uncomfortable to say the least – but mainly because of the mixed audience and the enthusiasm of many of the non-Americans.

But for me, the most interesting part of the evening (even surpassing the excellent fireworks show NOT put on by the Chinese delegation) was an exhibition that everyone entering and leaving the event had to pass.

It seems that the US Embassy recently held a contest for popular Tanzanian cartoonists to depict the relationship between the US and Africa. (I know… what were they thinking!!!)

On the 4th of July, displayed very nicely in the most public of places, for all the world to see, were 10 of the most critical and scathing cartoons about America I’ve ever seen. As I walked from one end of the exhibit (where George Bush was featured under a Mission Accomplished banner mocking all the fabulous missions accomplished by the US 50 years ago and longer but questioning what America has accomplished since) to the other end (where a giant George Bush was sucking all the mineral wealth from Africa while filling his pockets with money) I was stunned that someone in the Embassy actually had the balls to put these on display at all.

But at that moment I was intensely proud of my country. Because the country that I want to come from feels comfortable sharing and reflecting on outside criticism, even on the day meant to celebrate how fabulous we are.

I realized in that moment why overt acts of patriotism have always felt so awkward for me. It is because in America, patriotism is defined as unquestioning support for country. We are expected to love our country blindly, no matter what it does in our name. Anything less is open to attack as being un-American.

My definition of patriotism is different. It means I can love my country intensely (I do) and feel proud of all it has accomplished (I do) while still reflecting on the things we are not doing well (a lot at the moment) and work to change those things (I gave money to two Democratic candidates in June).

I love my country now. But the day that negative cartoons about America are exhibited on the front steps of the Capitol building on the 4th of July… my cup will runnith over with pride.


Blogger suburban dyke said...

Well said. I agree that it is awkward loving America and feeling necessary to criticize it. It's kinda like parents and children.

4:59 AM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

On July 4 I said to Nate, get out your flag gear! His answer: We don't have flag gear, we're liberals.

Sad and true.

Your last line is great btw.

5:07 AM  
Anonymous Alfred said...

Wonderful take on the festivities. I wish I could have seen the cartoons. Is the ambassador still the Wendy's franchise king? Or was it Chic-fil-et? Miss you, Al

3:49 AM  

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