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Proud to Be . . .

2004-05-12 - 10:23 a.m.

So . . .

I've been told that there is a problem with national pride in Germany. The reasons should be obvious. It's a twofold problem, in many ways. On the one hand, there is fear, the fear among the German citizens that a cry of "We love the fatherland!" will be interpreted as a renewal of Nazism, and will be met with swift retaliation from the rest of the world, if not their own government. Far deeper is the shame, the knowledge that the people of their nation were responsible for not simply a holocaust, but The Holocaust, the heartless slaughter of millions of men, women, and children, simply because they were Jewish, or Roma (gypsies for the non-PC), or queer, or disabled, or different in any way. I can understand that, at that point, it would be hard to feel any degree of national pride, no matter what strides Germany has made since then. I pity them; many of them, if not most, were born after the war, and many who were alive to see it were children, or were just too scared to fight back.

I've been thinking about this for the past few days, because right now I feel so ashamed of being an American.

Pride is an interesting feeling, to me. I once created a theatre piece about it for a work on the seven deadly sins, entitled, appropriately enough, The Seven Deadly Sins. I was interested because, as a queer person, pride is the banner I fly as I fight for my rights as an American (the irony of this is not lost on me). We have painted a rainbow veneer on the word, in many ways. I chose to create a scene about Pride that would confront pride in identity. I assembled a cast that included an Asian-American, an African-American, a Latino, an Italian-American, an Anglo-American, one queer person, two men, and three women. As we began our discussion of pride, I found out I had one child of immigrants, one person who considered the fact that she was "working-class" to be a fundamental part of her identity, and one person who had converted to Christianity. These were our labels, some more obvious than others, but nevertheless things that people had to read in order to begin to understand us. Many of these were our sources of pride. In our quest to claim these identities, we had questioned ourselves and those around us, we had to use our intellects and follow our hearts, we survived the playground and the locker room and the classroom and the street, all of which were places where people waited to tell us that we were not worthy of our pride. We had come by our pride honestly, and were prepared to defend it whenever possible.

Except, of course, when we were white, or male, or straight. In those instances, we were afraid that an expression of pride would link us to racism, or sexism, or homophobia. We also knew our history, knowing what white people have done to people of color, what men have done to women, what straight people have done to queer people, and we felt shame.

We realized that it would be incorrect to say that pride could never be a deadly sin, and that it would be irresponsible to say that pride could only be accessed by the oppressed. We began to talk about how we defined our pride, and realized that all of us--queers and Christians, Asians and Latinos, the blondes and those with afros--had, at least at times, defined our pride against other people. We were not simply smart or strong or wise, we were stronger than the white people who made our mothers clean floors, or smarter than the boys who thought a blonde girl was just there for sex, or wiser than the people who had never questioned their sexuality. We began to take our pride to a place of isolation, where we saw ourselves as more powerful, and more important, than anyone else around us, until we realized that we had built our pedestals so high that, not only were we alone, but we would be royally fucked if we fell.

It was an amazing piece to create, and perform, and it meant that the five of us got to know one another extremely well, and to discover the similarity of our struggles. A queer person in the Bible Belt and a Christian in the liberal northeast have a lot more in common than you would think.

I've been remembering that scene when I think about the phrase "Proud To Be An American." It wasn't so long ago that I never questioned that phrase. I knew that America had its problems, but I also knew that it had people and mechanisms within its government that meant the problems could be solved. I knew that we were always improving ourselves, that America was becoming a better place decade by decade, and that we would come to a place--maybe in a few centuries, maybe in less than one--where we could grant liberty and equality to everyone in our nation, and everyone in the world.

I don't know anymore. I feel like I've woken up to a nightmare, and that the nightmare has always been going on. I look at the pictures of the prisoners being beaten in Iraq and all I can see is smallpox blankets being given to Native Americans and slaves being beaten to death and women raped in Vietnam, and I can't find pride anywhere. All I know is shame.

Wait, I'm lying. I know fear as well.

Because yesterday Iraqis began slaughtering people in the name of the prisoners that we tortured with smiles on our faces, smiles that will haunt me for the rest of my life. All around the world, people are seeing the pictures and saying, "This is America." Many of them will have guns, and bombs, and chemicals, and children whom they will teach to hate America. Sure, a lot of them were planning on doing that already. But now they have visual aides.

I hope that one day I can reclaim my pride in America. I hope that I can find a way to wade through the centuries of genocide and oppression in the name of manifest destiny and commerce. I hope that this will be the last gasps of the monster, like the end of the horror movie when the demon or killer comes back just one more time, after everyone thought it was dead. I hope that I can talk about my pride, and teach it to my children. I am deeply afraid that I won't be able to because of the fear of what other people with guns will do when I say that I am proud to be an American.

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