The Myth of Nationalism in America

Sarah Silverman had a segment about nationalism on her Hulu show, “I Love You, America,” a few months ago that got me thinking. Nationalism is defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as a patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts. In extreme form, nationalism is especially marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries. It can also mean advocacy of political independence for a particular country.

Silverman said she began thinking of the subject years ago when a boyfriend hoisted an American flag in front of his house, and it made her feel profoundly uncomfortable. She explored what nationalism meant to Jews historically, and how nationalism tends to play out. It seldom has to do with an entire nation, and if it does, it bodes poorly for everyone else.

American nationalism, as in Trump’s effective slogan “Make America Great Again,” seem to have little to do with the nation and more with one demographic — in our case, usually white people. This means white working class-to-middle-class people, with great preferences given to white rich people; especially, in all classes, white men, with the women bringing up the rear for good measure. This is not what anyone publicly says — even Trump is not crass enough to say it. But if a good percentage of Americans’ ideal of the country’s greatness was last expressed in the pre-Civil-Rights-era 1950s, or, for some, the pre-civil-war-era 1850s, white supremacy may, in large part, be exactly what appears to make America great.

Naturally, implicit racism is not the only thing American nationalism appears to embrace. It also prefers cisgender married folks with plenty of kids, emphasis on white, gender-conforming kids. Somehow all of this got mixed up with Christianity, which is also considered as lily white as the sandy-haired Jesus portraits that are lovingly hung on the Sunday school walls of Christian churches across the land. Any time I’ve encountered a Christian TV station I’ve gotten a dose of the old-time greatness some of us are missing in the TV shows they aired, which included The Andy Griffith Show and Little House on the Prairie. Almost everyone on these shows was white and almost every woman knew her place. They tackled topics like alcoholism and rats infesting the town’s grain and spreading plague, but only on rare occasion what it felt like to be black in America, gay, or a woman. It was seldom asked how things felt to the marginalized.

Therefore, most streaks of nationalism have never had anything to do with the real America. In the early 1960s, when The Andy Griffith Show aired, the nation was about to explode with a newly irrepressible dose of what America was really about: everybody. As Americans, we have always prided ourselves in our melting pot, and of images Ellis Island taking in the tired, poor and huddled masses, but we have never truly embraced it. The huddled masses, for many, were lice-infested job-stealers who ought’ve stayed put. The nation was built on the genocide and disenfranchisement of the people already here. It was built on slavery, which we could just as easily call “other people’s intense, unrelieved suffering, for which there was no and would never be any recompense.” It was built on bigotry that got people killed over religious beliefs and harassed over nationality, even among Europeans. Its ideals of freedom were noble, but its practices were regularly shameful. No group other than white, land-owning men ever had a right in this nation they didn’t fight for.

It is important to understand, then, that true nationalism in this country would be entirely new. It would seek to embrace, lift up, support and care for all Americans, which have always, and not only recently, included: Native Americans, black Americans, LGBTQ Americans, women of all backgrounds, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, the mentally ill, felons, and the list goes on. These are who American citizens actually are. 

American nationalism shouldn’t seem threatening to its fellow citizens. Being an American citizen in and of itself should mean something, no matter who you are. What does being an American mean if you’re black, Muslim, or gay? While so many in this nation are still fighting for basic humans rights, citizenship in itself means next to nothing.

Muhammad Ali called the nation on this gross hypocrisy when he refused to answer his draft during Vietnam. He said America never fought for him, so he wasn’t going to fight for it. What he said was irrefutably true. It wasn’t merely irrefutably true, it was also easily provably true, but he was fined, sentenced to prison and thrown out of boxing for saying it. 

If we are a divided nation, the core of the division is that we don’t value all American citizens and we never have. Let me repeat that: We do not value all Americans. It’s not that we don’t value them as much; often, we don’t value them at all. Many Black Americans are terrified of police for good reason, and have no sense that they’re included in the protection law enforcement is supposed to offer. Women are paid less, given fewer opportunities, have significantly less representation, and fear for their safety. Muslims and Jews have to secure their synagogues and mosques to feel safe. We have to raise funds from the public to get our kids life-saving cancer treatment. We graduate from college buried in debt. Considering that, where would the sense of nationalistic unity comes from? It is not merely politics that divides us. We need to learn to love and care for our own, all American citizens, before America can ever truly be great, or before nationalism can seem anything but threatening to so many of us. And then, the mandate is to care as passionately for others, just as we have always prided ourselves for doing.

Cover Photo: Promo Sarah Silverman Hulu Show "I Love You, America"