Is “Pride as an American” a Rational Thing?

We hear a lot about “national pride” and “national identity” these days. Does such a thing make any sense? And is it rational and healthy?

What prompted me was a quote from the late comedian George Carlin.

“I could never understand ethnic or national pride. Because to me pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own, not somthing that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn’t a skill, it’s a [f**n] genetic accident. You wouldn’t say I’m proud to be 5’11” or I’m proud to have a predisposition for colon cancer.”

You might say you’re proud to be an American. But what are you proud of? Are you proud because you were born in America? That wasn’t your choice. Are you proud of all that Americans have accomplished over the generations? But pride refers to a positive appraisal of your own efforts. Or perhaps the efforts of a child you guided and raised, or a student or employee you mentored.

I’m proud to be an American, but only as an extension of the fact that I’m proud to stand for individualism, liberty, capitalism and individual rights. The USA never stood consistently for those things, and in many respects it stands less for those things than ever, Donald Trump’s election notwithstanding. But the dominant history of America, and the potential I still hope for, represents values and principles that I’m happy and proud to embrace, no matter where I was born or the era in which I live. I chose those ideas and principles, and am proud that I did.

If that’s what national pride in being an American is, then I get it.

Progressives sneer at national pride, at least in America. They recognize that the United States has, for the most part, stood for individual liberty, economic freedom and individualism. As socialists and collectivists, they hate these things, so naturally America does not deserve pride, not in their view. America deserves pride only if someone like Barack Obama belittles and scolds us at every turn, not for our vices but for our virtues.

For the most part, throughout history, national pride has been a falsehood as George Carlin so humorously yet truthfully pointed out. “I’m proud to be Irish” or “I’m proud to be Italian” or “I’m proud to be of African heritage” all make reference to the actions of people who lived generations — even centuries — before. While you might have warm feelings about any of these traditions, values or past actions of people for various reasons, pride does not make sense. Whatever their accomplishments, those achievements are theirs — not yours.

I think people sometimes confuse pride with admiration. And the things they admire have less to do with achievement than what Carlin correctly called an accident of birth. More than any other civilization in human history today, the USA was based on individual achievement, not accidents of birth. If only more of us would find this a cause to celebrate, human potential and happiness could soar as never before.

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