One of our nation’s most prestigious journalists celebrates our rediscovery of the American Dream.
The New Patriotism
The sense of national pride that swept the country since the onset of Operation Desert Storm has about it a unique, almost unprecedented character. Not since World War ll have Americans been so taken with national symbols, so unabashed about indulging themselves in simple manifestations of patriotism.
Fierce pride and a sense of national renewal define America’s mood as we celebrate our 215th birthday with homecoming ceremonies for Gulf War veterans supplementing the usual fireworks displays and 4th of July parades. Flag decals adorn car windshields; actual flags fly from apartment windows and on suburban lawns; yellow ribbons remain plentiful; and lusty voices since the National Anthem with rare enthusiasm at sporting events.
Some of the superficial patriotic trappings will disappear, but we’re seeing a phenomenon that’s deeper than a momentary desire to feel good about America. In fact, many Americans are emerging from an extended period of uncertainty about this country and its prospects. Whether we call it the “Vietnam syndrome” or the “national malaise” (to use Jimmy Carter’s term), a tepid, tentative, unhappy period is drawing to a close.
That’s as it should be. Americans have a lot to be proud of, and we have lots of reasons for optimism.
The Gulf War taught us a fair bit. American soldiers fought courageously and well.
Because they were disciplined, confident of their training, and motivated. They were animated by a genuine sense of purpose — they believed in what they were doing.
The war also taught us that American technology actually works. All those who have argued that Americans can’t make anything good anymore would do well to remember that most of the weaponry and equipment used in the battle to liberate Kuwait was designed and manufactured right here in the United States. Obviously, when we put our minds to it, we can still assemble some pretty sophisticated stuff. And if we can make the tools of war — not to speak of the means to explore space — why should we concede an inability to compete with other countries in more mundane areas of technological endeavor?
We learned from the war that the nations of the world still look to us for leadership. For all the talk of America’s decline, despite the widespread attention to a united Europe and an ascendant Japan, when the chips were down, all eyes focused on Washington, D.C. Not just because, in a military sense, we’re the last remaining superpower, but because, even at our advanced age, we’re still on the ideological cutting edge. Democracy — American-style democracy — is the wave of the future.
The death of Communism as a competing ideology was no accident. It is democracy and capitalism — the free-enterprise system — that attract imitators. Democratic ideals continue to inspire protests and rebellions the world over.
And it’s because of this society’s fundamentally democratic character that immigrants from across the globe continue to flock to these shores. From Haiti to Ireland to Korea, young (and not-so-young) men and women still do all they can to get here. Their goal? To build new lives here; to raise their families here; to realize their hopes and dreams here.
The perception that America remains a land of opportunity endures for a reason — it’s true.
While it’s altogether natural that patriotism should flourish in this context, a fair number of people find overt manifestations of patriotism inherently unsettling. They see only its most negative potential attributes: mindless jingoism, intolerance, and militarism. Thus, those of us who are genuinely encouraged by the advent of a popular patriotic sensibility have a challenge ahead: We need to define an intelligent patriotism for the nineties.
This is a time for Americans to “count our blessings,” and it’s important that we identify the particular blessings on which to focus. If we ask ourselves what’s best about contemporary America — and what’s most salient in. the American national experience — the answer turns on the same fundamental fact that draws so many newcomers to these shores: The American Dream is alive and well. It is real and constant — it is not a myth, and it is not a happy piece of distant history.