After graduating high school and before enrolling at Cornell, I spent a year being an American in foreign countries, mostly teaching English and traveling in Nepal and India. Near the end of my time abroad, I found myself sitting in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a small town called Rewalsar, sharing a hearty Indian lunch with a French couple I had met the night before. They had been traveling in Asia for several months, and were reminiscing in warm tones about the beautiful countries they had visited. The talk turned to my own travels, and the French woman across from me asked, “After all that wandering, what’s your favorite country in the world?”
As much to my surprise as theirs, I answered without hesitation, “America.” A very French expression of distaste came across their faces in unison, which, to their credit, they quickly replaced with expressions of friendly concern. “Yeah,” I said, trying not to sound apologetic, “I really, really love America.”
The words felt strange in my mouth. For most of my high school years, America had meant the America of Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney: an angry tribe of obese bigots, only too willing to drop bombs on the other side of the world in the name of God, oil or revenge. First as an atheist and then as a Buddhist, I had grown increasingly hostile towards being told to pledge allegiance to one nation under a God in whom I did not believe. As far as I was concerned, the “greatness” of this supposedly Christian America was built on Native American blood, Chinese sweatshop labor and Iraqi oil. I could see no difference between patriotism and nationalism, and given my very basic understanding of early 20th Century European history, I wanted nothing to do with either of them.
Given these convictions, I was as troubled as my French companions were by what sounded suspiciously like patriotism coming out of my American mouth. An ugly refrain came floating through my head:
... and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there...
A 1944 public opinion poll found that 13 percent of the American public was in favor of the complete extermination of every Japanese man, woman and child. In my own lifetime, I have heard America howl for Arab blood. I have seen young men dancing in the streets at the assassination of Osama bin Laden. I’m a pacifist, living in a country whose national anthem praises the beauty of rockets and bombs, whose military budget accounts for 40 percent of the world’s military spending. I’m an environmentalist, living in a country whose five percent of the world population consumes 20 percent of the world's energy. I’m a Buddhist, living in a country that was founded on genocide and slavery. What the hell was I doing, sitting in India and going on about how much I love America? There is however another song that plays in my head whenever I think of home.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain ...
Beyond the blood staining America’s hands, beyond the oil dripping from America’s bloated lips, beyond the groan of violent want resounding from America’s belly, I see a mother. I see milk and honey. I see the nurturing breast of fertile soil. I see a land of opportunity, and I see half-decent approximations of liberty and democracy. I was born in this country, and it has been good to me. Yes, my experience would be different if I were not a straight, white male, and mine is, admittedly, a good life, built on exploitation and injustice. All the same, Mother America has nurtured me, as she has nurtured so many. For that, I cannot help but love her, even as my head is filled with her past, present and future crimes.
Because I believe “patriotism” is an inappropriate word to describe this sentiment, I propose a new word: Matriotism. The “matriot” loves his Mother Country because She is a land of plenty, not because She is all-powerful and gives Herself the right to impose Her will on the rest of the world. The matriot can sing of fruited plains with love in his heart, but still shield his eyes from the rockets’ red glare and all of the violence and hatred that are inseparable from war. The enemies of the matriot are belligerence, greed and intolerance, for these are the forces that transform a land of milk and honey into a land of murderers and thieves. The matriot will gladly go to his death to make the Mother Country as bountiful and nurturing as possible, but he cannot possibly do so with a gun in his hand or anger in his heart.
Perhaps most importantly, the matriot need not go about proclaiming his own land’s superiority to all others. I love my mother, but that doesn’t mean I think she is “The Greatest Mother in the World,” as if that would even be a meaningful claim. It means I love her, because she gave me life. It is only natural that you love your own mother more than you love mine. I don’t feel the need to prove to you that my mother is more benevolent than your mother. Such an impulse would profoundly miss the point.
The moment that love of country gives rise to the thought, “My country is greater than your country, and in a fight, my country would win,” that emotion ceases to deserve the name of love. That emotion is ego, and betrays a poisonous misconception of greatness. A truly great Mother Country could never send Her children to die in a senseless war. A truly great Mother Country could never turn the huddled masses away from Her borders. And a truly great Mother Country would not be so damned obsessed with “keeping up with China,” whatever that means.
This distinction between patriotism and matriotism goes a long way towards explaining the discomfort I felt in telling the French couple in India that I love America. I was afraid that they would interpret my words to mean, “America is the greatest country in the world, and if you don’t believe me, I’ve brought American missiles, American dollars and the CIA to back up my claim.” Some people do mean this when they say that they love America. I take this way of “loving America” to be an insult to love, as well as an insult to America.
When I say I love America, I mean just that: “I love America. It’s a really, really nice place to live, and I would give my life to make America as truly great as She can be.” I also think Canada is pretty cool, and I really enjoyed my time in Nepal, but ultimately, I’m throwing in my lot with Mother America. Because I love Her, and because She is sick, and needs help from Her children.
Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.