Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 36, May 2003

On "being proud of"

Lately I have been thinking about the meaning of “being proud of.” It is hard to drive on a highway or walk down a street and not see a billboard or a bumper sticker that says “Proud to be American” or some variant thereof. So I started to wonder what do we mean when we utter or write such a phrase? To begin with, this isn’t something that people do just for the fun of it. Few are patriotic enough to spell out their pride unless they mean it as a message addressing a particular situation. That particular situation, of course, has recently been provided first by the 9/11 attacks, and now by the war on Iraq and the controversy that it has generated, both nationally and -- more dramatically -- internationally.

Even so, I suppose there is no logical contradiction in, say, being proud of being an American and yet oppose preemptive wars because they violate international law. Indeed, many antiwar protesters have made it a point of displaying their patriotism with flags and slogans to reinforce the idea that they don’t think of themselves as “anti-American,” but simply anti-Bush foreign policy. So one can be proud of being an American for many different, sometimes blatantly contradictory reasons.

But more generally, and I don’t mean to offend anybody by asking this question, whenever I see the slogan “Proud to be American” I want to stop the person and ask a simple question: why? Or, more precisely, “what do you mean by that?” Surely there are exceedingly good things that the nation known as the United States of America has done during the course of its history. To name but a few, it created the first modern democratic state based on the principles of the European Enlightenment, it has successfully fought off Adolf Hitler, and has sent a human being on the Moon. Surely these are things to be mighty proud of.

Then again, that very same United States of America has done other things one would more likely be ashamed of, including exterminating entire indigenous populations in the process of building the new nation, engaging in racist policies that have been abandoned only gradually and painfully, and holding the record for being the only nation ever to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Should we as individuals be proud (or ashamed) of these things? Well, we certainly didn’t do them (though we may be taking advantage of some of the outcomes). Let us remember that it is by a simple accident of birth that one is American as opposed to French, or Iraqi. And that most of us don’t actually participate in our nation’s civil life enough to claim any right to brag or be sorry about what that nation does during our lifetime (let alone what it did before we lived). From that perspective, being proud of being an American, French, or Iraqi is downright silly. It would be like being proud of supporting a particular baseball team just because one happens to live in a particular town (oh, right, people do that!).

And yet, I understand the feeling that brings people to cheer for a sports team or a nation. Heck, I religiously watch the soccer world cup, proudly recounting the past and present feats of the Italian team, even though I have made absolutely no contribution to it. Furthermore, despite the fact that I profoundly dislike any form of nationalism from a rational perspective, I have to admit that I feel at home when I enter a restaurant that serves good Chianti and pasta al dente. Indeed, I caught myself even at being somewhat boastful of the remote history of my country, from the absolute geographical and cultural dominance of the Roman Empire (take that, George Bush!) to the masterpieces of Renaissance artists! But, believe me, in my sober moments I realize that the Roman Empire wasn’t exactly a political machinery to be proud of, and that Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel completely independently of any help from me whatsoever.

What, then, does it mean to be “proud of” being associated with an abstract entity such as a team or a nation? I suppose it is a reflection of the deep need for a sense of belonging that we all have, mixed with whatever imprinting we got from the surrounding environment when we were growing up. There is nothing wrong with that: it is fun to watch sports events with some sort of emotional involvement (not just as “spectators”), and it is even good to feel some degree of cohesion with the society with live in. What is not good is to forget to at least occasionally step outside of our feelings and take a look at the question from a more neutral ground. Then it shouldn’t be difficult to realize that other people have just as much right to feel “proud of” being something else as we do, and that we are therefore not entitled to trample all over them with a condescending smile on our face. Is that too much to ask?

Next: Post-war

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003