Jewish Journal

4th of July blues: Why Americans suck at patriotism, and what we can learn from the Middle East

by Simone Wilson

July 4, 2013 | 9:25 am

You have to admire their confidence.

In all my 26 years, this is the first 4th of July that I've spent in a country that loves America. Everyone keeps congratulating me. It's really weird.

I come from west-of-the-5 California, where we the guilty left have a very love-hate relationship with Independence Day. (Love for barbeque sauce; hate for whichever bad-government news item is getting our goat at the moment. This year, surely, curses on the NSA will be flowing quicker than the condiments.) Ever since I hit college, the 4th of July routine has been, more or less, to pick up some vintage red-white-and-blue number from the thrift (the good old days!), crash the town parade totally sloshed (sweet tea of rebellion!) and set off Mexican fireworks over the ocean to taunt the pigs onshore (F the po-lice!). I wouldn't call it hipster patriotism — there is nothing ironic for me about sparklers, cowboy boots and an illegal beach Budweiser, though I can't speak for the rest of my generation — but it's definitely a little dark and twisty.

However, my routine's got nothing on Gawker's bloody hate note to America this year. "Everyone celebrating the Fourth of July is an idiot," writes Ken Layne in his sprawling hacker-lib manifesto. "Never have so many ninnies and cretins rallied 'round the old flag." Even if it's ironic, it's depressing as hell.

Love of country, I've noticed, is much more clear-cut for young people in the Middle East. It's a matter of survival. How much simpler it is to pledge allegiance to your little flag-on-a-stick when you're under the constant threat of war; when it's the people vs. the occupier; when your entire national identity is at stake; when you collectively hate your president so much that you're willing to rush the palace and physically remove him from his throne.

And — in the case of Israel — loving America is easy when you get $3 billion in fighter jets gift-wrapped on your front doorstep each year, to help you through your great holy war. All my America ever gave me was a mountain of student loans and a privelege complex.

Growing up in the U.S., and wearing the American identity abroad, is a bit more confusing. A 15-year-old boy in Gaza asked me last December, as I awkwardly adjusted my malfastened yet well-meaning headscarf: "Why does Obama want to kill us?" How to explain in that moment, through a translator who could barely understand me, that I simultaneously adored my president and was disgusted by a thousand and one of his policies, both abroad and at home?

Americans who travel to the Middle East are endlessly fascinated by the IDF, the Arab Spring, the sense around here that something very immediate and historic is happening. My media peers back at home seem positively tickled that Egypt's most recent Independence Day has happened to fall on Fourth of July Eve. (Nevermind the fact that the protests were almost as anti-America as they were anti-Morsi). I can relate — I've never been on such a high as when running from tear gas in Turkey, even if the experience left me feeling like a bit of a soul-suck. And I can imagine that setting off Independence Day fireworks might be worlds more rewarding on two hours of sleep and a freshly won revolution under my belt.

I remember in November 2008, when young America felt a brief flicker of actual, earnest, cheesy patriotism — a rare sense of forward motion — upon electing our first black president, a figurehead for hope and change. But that quickly died, as we realized he was just a human built into a broken system. Occupy Wall Street in 2011 was even more exciting, for the noble couple months it lasted. But without the passion of 20 million Egyptians in pursuit of true democracy in a volatile Middle East, our vegitative state of security and comfort allowed police to sweep the parks clean. (Hey, even in a crap economy, an In 'N' Out burger never costs more than a five-spot.)

If only we could take ourselves seriously for longer than two seconds! To quote that infamous New York Times op-ed on the nation's growing hipster plague: "As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. ... Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom?" And to quote the Jewish Journal's own Marty Kaplan: "I have outrage envy." 

I'm not jealous of Israel's oft-distorted sense of self, but I long for their togetherness, and their fight. Same goes for that of the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Turks.

Isn't the gift of belonging to the world's most powerful nation — and having the freedom to move past survival mode to help solve the problems of the future — worth a little more passion than we're giving? We can even call it post-patriotism, if that'll make us feel better.

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Simone Wilson is a 26-year-old journalist from Northern California currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. She served as editor in chief of UC San Diego’s student newspaper, the...

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