[In honor of Patriots’ Day, and inspired by my book-in-progress for the American Ways series on the history of American patriotisms, a series on that topic and examples of critical patriotism from across American history. Leading up to a special post on that next book project of mine!]
On the only time and way we can be genuinely patriotic.
One of my favorite literary exchanges of all time, and the one with which I began the Introduction to my fourth book, occurs in the opening chapter of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996; the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series that was adapted into the uber-popular HBO show). Seven year-old Brandon “Bran” Stark is riding home with his father and brothers from his first experience witnessing one of his father’s most difficult duties as a lord, the execution of a criminal; his father insists that if he is to sentence men to die, he should be the one to execute them, and likewise insists that his sons learn of and witness this once they are old enough. Two of Bran’s brothers have been debating whether the man died bravely or as a coward, and when Bran asks his father which was true, his father turns the question around to him. “Can a man be brave when he is afraid?” Bran asks. “That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father replies.
On the surface the line might seem obvious, an appeal to some of our very trite narratives about courage in the face of danger and the like (narratives that operate in explicit contrast to the ideas of cowardice with which I engaged in this post). But to my mind the moment, like all of Martin’s amazingly dense and complex series, works instead to undermine our easy narratives and force us to confront more difficult and genuine truths. That is, I believe we tend to define bravery, courage, heroism as the absence of fear, as those individuals who in the face of danger do not feel the same limiting emotions that others do and so can rise to the occasion more fully. But Martin’s truth is quite the opposite—that bravery is instead something that is found through and then beyond fear, that it is only by admitting the darker and more potentially limiting realities that we can then strive for the brightest and most ideal possibilities. I find that insight so potent not only because of its potential to revise oversimplifying narratives and force us to confront a complex duality instead, but also because it posits a version of heroism that any individual can achieve—if everyone feels fear in the face of danger, then everyone has the potential to be brave as well.
I’m thinking today about this exchange in Martin’s book for two reasons: the Massachusetts (and Maine)-specific holiday: Patriots’ Day; and the work I’ve been doing all spring on my next book, Of Thee I Sing: Competing Visions of American Patriotism (on which more in the special weekend post). As with our narratives of courage and heroism, I believe that far too many of our ideals of patriotism focus on what I would call the easy, celebratory kind: the patriotism that salutes a flag, that sings an anthem, that pledges allegiance, that says things like “God bless America” and “greatest country in the world” by rote. Whatever the communal value of such patriotism, it asks virtually nothing of individuals, and does even less to push a nation to be the best version of itself (if anything, it argues that the nation is already that best version). So in parallel to Martin’s line, I would argue for the harder and more genuine, critical form of patriotism, the kind that faces the darkest realities and strives for the brightest hope through that recognition, the kind that, when asked “Can an American be a patriot if he/she is critical of his/her country?,” replies, “That is the only time an American can be a patriot.”
First critical patriot tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other examples or forms of patriotism you’d highlight?
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