My Mother is the Republic

It’s spring today.

It’s been a strange few months. Tuesday the 20th will mark the end of my freshman year of college — an exciting one, and a thought-provoking one, and ultimately, I think, a good one. There’ll be time for reflections and memoirs. I don’t want to do that now.

For now, it’s spring. Washington Square Park is a riot of greenery. The sun is lighting up the edges of the world, turning my notebook into gold and bringing the leaves’ shadows dancing along the grass towards my hands, and I feel — as I usually feel, when the seasons change in New York —  as if I have been granted an incredible privilege, to witness something enormously and unspeakably good.

The second half of this semester has been all activism. This is as much from boredom as anything else — my classes have given me next to no homework, and a broken ankle prevented me from joining any clubs back in February. I know myself as well as I know anything, and if there’s one thing my brain can’t handle, it is restlessness. The work I’ve been doing over the past month and a half for Student Net Alliance, particularly the Students Against Surveillance letter, has been a godsend. It’s fulfilling work, it’s good work, and I’ll count myself lucky if I get to continue.

But while restlessness is one reason why I’ve loved my SNA work so much, it’s certainly not the only reason, and looking around the park on this gorgeous May afternoon, I think I’m starting to understand one of the others.

If there is one thing about me that my friends find endlessly bewildering, it’s my patriotism. In my life I’ve met a very small handful of people who feel quite as strongly about the United States as I do, and out of that handful, only one or two shared my political views. I’m not sure if I’ve ever met someone else who’s had to explain irritatedly that she wasn’t actually a right-wing nationalist, and then, not fifteen minutes later, had to explain with equal irritation that she wasn’t actually a Communist.

I wouldn’t have voted for Bush, I tell people again and again, and I rarely if ever support the current administration’s foreign policy, economic viewpoints, or attitude towards history. And, Jesus, there is no way in hell that I would join the military.

It’s just that I love America. Love it, the way you love a family member, or a friend you’ve known since birth. Love it more than I love anything. Love it so much it hurts.

I don’t know how to explain this — I’m beginning to think it can’t be explained. “You can love somebody without liking them,” I say, but that’s not quite right — or, “Blind love isn’t real love, if you can’t see someone’s flaws you don’t really love them at all,” but that’s not quite right, either.

It has something to do, I think, with the idea of being the greatest country in the world.

Which is a title that most Americans take more or less for granted, regardless of actual facts. There’s a monologue from the pilot episode of the TV show The Newsroom that my Irish friend loves to quote, which throws out statistic after statistic about America’s mediocrity — 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality — and then, later, turns into a bitter diatribe about how America used to be wonderful and excellent and brave and kind and generally flawless in every way. (My Irish friend tends not to quote that second part, which is good, because it’s not true.)

I was six years old when the Twin Towers fell. I was seven when my country invaded Iraq. I’ve heard more than my fair share of rhetoric about how America is the greatest country in the world.

And I’ve seen more than my fair share of the opposite, too — after all, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, moved to Manhattan. If the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda when I was in first grade, well, Edward Snowden’s revelations came out the week I graduated high school. I’m educated, I’m well-read, I’m an adult; I know that to think of America as the powerful, glorious hero I’ve been told it is would be — wrong, and worse than wrong. Not only untrue, but a betrayal of truth.

But I don’t want America to be that powerful, glorious hero. I don’t want it to be an endlessly benevolent superpower, an enormous and strong and morally righteous policeman. I don’t want it to be the greatest country in the world.

It’s spring today.

Probably my favorite moral philosopher is the comic author Terry Pratchett, who writes the Discworld series. Various politicians and philosophers have declared, over the years, that humans are Fundamentally Evil, or Fundamentally Good; Terry Pratchett claims that humans, Fundamentally, would like to go home and have a cup of tea. Which I think is more or less true, and I can’t help but love humanity all the more for it.

And today it’s spring. And the shadows are longer than they were when I started writing, and the golden gleam of the sun has faded from my notebook, and the mothers are telling their children to stop playing and come along. There are dogs barking furiously somewhere to my left, and two girls to my right kissing in the grass; there’s a truck on the road with a huge cloth draped over it and #UKRAINERISING scribbled on the cloth, and somewhere behind me, a saxophonist who’s been playing one note so long I think he must be blue in the face. And there’s the smell of pretzels cooking, and the smell of pot, and the smell of summer.

I don’t want America to be great. How could I? I want America to be good.

And so this is the other reason, the reason that isn’t boredom and restlessness. This is the reason why I light up with joy every time there’s a new project I can help with. This is the reason I want to do this work.

There are motivations that are very big and important in this world, motivations like Truth, and Justice, and Liberty; and there are reasons that are very little and silly, like a spring afternoon in the park, and a small but unshakeable feeling that these people deserve what is good. And if you ask me, I’ll make passionate speeches about the former — but it’s difficult, really, to say where my heart is.

It’s been a good year. I mean to make better ones.

And, for now, I mean to go home.


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