Last weekend, Krystal Lake, a 22 year-old young African American woman working at a Staten Island Home Depot store, was photographed wearing a custom-made hat that read "America Was Never Great." The picture was posted online without Lake's permission, and it and Lake received the expected (but still deeply troubling) quantity of hateful, racist, and ugly responses--including death threats--from Donald Trump supporters and other internet trolls.
I applaud Lake's creativity and passion, and have nothing but contempt for all those who responded to her in such hateful and horrific ways. They exemplify the ugly underbelly of American society that Trump's candidacy has so consistently and thoroughly drawn into the open of our conversations. Yet at the same time, I won't be joining the substantial number of fellow progressives and public American Studies scholars who have committed to buying the hat or otherwise supporting and spreading its message.
For one thing, I don't think that message makes sense on a political and pragmatic level. Embracing this perspective means overtly ceding to Trump supporters not only his specific "Make America Great Again" slogan, but broader narratives that seek to celebrate American greatness in any way. I believe there are far more Americans who find greatness in our nation than there are current Trump supporters, and differentiating such Americans--those political moderates, for example, who still have a sense of pride in key elements of their American identities and communities--from the opposition to Trump can only risk leading them to feel more closely tied to his perspective and ideas. That's no way to win an election.
These conversations aren't just about the 2016 presidential election, though. And more broadly, "America was Never Great" represents one more step in the long process by which American patriotism in any and all forms has been ceded to both the political right and (much more destructively) to those who practice an uncritical, purely celebratory, "my country right or wrong" strand of patriotism. That strand isn't new: "America: love it or leave it" was a common critique of anti-war protesters in the Vietnam era, to cite just one example. But in the absence of alternative visions of patriotism, the purely celebratory form has become far too often the only available patriotic perspective in our national conversations.
I'm one of a group of scholars who are working to change that, and to introduce an alternative vision of critical patriotism. In that blog post, cross-posted on the wonderful 'Merica magazine which itself is dedicated to promoting such critical patriotism, I paraphrase a famous exchange from the opening chapter of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones as follows: "Can an American be patriotic if he or she is critical of our country?" "That is the only time he or she can be patriotic." This perspective, in turn, could lead to a third slogan: "America Can Be Great--and Here's How."
We have so many historical models for this brand of critical patriotism, once we start to look for it. Revolutionary era women writers like Abigail Adams and Judith Sargent Murray who used the Revolution's rhetoric and ideals to critique gender realities and argue for equality. Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" speech, which measured the distance between the holiday and slavery to make the case for abolitionism. Migrant worker turned poet and activist Carlos Bulosan, whose book America is in the Heart details the worst forms of prejudice and oppression yet culminates in one of our most inclusive and optimistic visions of American identity.
These and so many other American figures and texts both argue for and embody our nation's true greatness. There's no doubt that we have far too often failed to live up to that potential, and today risk doing so again once more. But the way to oppose that trend isn't to say we've never been great--it's to highlight, learn from, and extend the models of critical patriotism, from those who remind us that we can be great, and show us how.