A Vignette in American Optimism

Patriotism and Old Glory amidst a National Unrest

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press

A FRIEND of mine told me a little personal anecdote with the rare quality of being both cloyingly emblematic and very funny in a specific, depraved way.

HER NEIGHBOR, who had served in the military, had decided some weeks back that he was going to perform a Flag Raising ceremony every morning, in his front yard, in full uniform, for the cul-de-sac. It was something to bring the neighborhood together (not too close though) and lift everyone’s spirits during the lockdown. He started this ritual shortly before George Floyd was tragically murdered, in what would culminate in nationwide unrest. Overnight, this well-meaning man’s innocuous idea to raise his neighbors’ spirits had been unwittingly re-contextualized and politicized, its affect wholly subverted. To a mostly liberal, affluent suburb, this display couldn’t help but appear unseemly to some.

To suggest national pride feels cheap, it rings as tone deaf, it feels unearned, the sheer optimism is obscene…

THE NATION is hurting. As a global pandemic exposes the ineptitude of our government and as we grapple with searing anger over the persistent and senseless killings of African-Americans, it is a time for serious reflection, and even more serious change. To suggest national pride feels cheap, it rings as tone deaf, it feels unearned, the sheer optimism is obscene…. Nevertheless, I feel that this man, in his desire to fly our flag high and proud for his neighbors, in these times of all, understood something essential.

WE’RE TIRED of feeling bad, and maybe guilty about it. We’re maybe even tired of feeling bad about feeling bad about feeling bad (that’s not a typo). We should feel bad, we should feel guilty, right? Anything else would lack empathy, or adequate recognition of this moment. That Happy Birthday Instagram post for your friend’s 22nd can wait — you don’t want to stick out among the black squares. You shouldn’t get too excited about going back out to the bars now that they’ve reopened, and you certainly shouldn’t be raising the flag right now. You’re supposed to feel bad.

This sentiment is appropriately heightened right now, but the doctrine of feeling bad has plagued the conscious American liberal for decades now. You see it on the timeline, you hear it in conversations. Your best friend doesn’t know what she can do to help. One of your classmates offhandedly said that she doesn’t want to bring kids into this world, that we have enough problems as it is — one of your favorite politicians seems to agree with the anti-natalist sentiment. A guy from your high school writes a post lamenting his white privilege, but that he doesn’t want to make it about himself. I recently took a Philosophy course subtitled “Living in the End Times” (for what it’s worth, it was a great course).

THIS PESSIMISM is rooted in empathy, and the burden of living in such a large community. The cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, of Sandra Bland from people we do not know in places we may not live nevertheless demand our personal reflection. In what ways are we complicit? This reflection, paired with the recognition of the everyday pain felt by the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed makes it hard to feel good. Even when pondering solutions, soberly understanding the sheer enormity of the tasks at hand make it feel stupid to be optimistic.

2020 HAS BEEN a uniquely bad year, but our problems transcend it. The incarceration machine has been humming along for decades, dismantling the police state will be met with fierce resistance, the elections in November will prove logistically difficult — how the President and his supporters respond to either victory or defeat are both frightening prospects, the Climate Crisis is escalating unchecked, and the stench of our institutional rot can be detected across the nation.

BUT it’s all too easy to forget that modernity, and the American experience has always been characterized by crisis. We live in a world of rapid and constant change, where beautiful bridges are built and turn to rust, where cultural forms are supplanted before they can solidify, a world charging ahead into the unknown. Nothing is static, everything is falling apart all of the time. Look at any moment in modernity, and it is plagued by crisis — real and imagined. Slavery, war, depression…at all points, there were real reasons to feel shame, to think twice before affirming and exalting ourselves.

WHAT’S TRULY SHOCKING is that the pessimists, the haters and the naysayers have mostly been wrong. The Malthusians, the Marxists, the Declinists; their predictions haven’t borne true. Poverty has been declining for decades. Living standards have increased. Although we’ve experienced backsliding and reversal, our Government and those around the world are more democratic and more liberal than ever before. Women, gays, and those with non-traditional gender identities are treated with greater human dignity than ever before. The Nation is more tolerant, more diverse, and more educated than at any point in history. Amidst persistent crises and moral failures, we’ve still managed to do real good.

The stakes are dizzyingly higher and the fruit in our reach stupendously sweeter.

HOWEVER, we ought not be naïve enough to believe a linear progress narrative. As the world grows more prosperous, it only grows more precarious. The next century holds unknown horrors. Information and power have never been so diffuse; violent capabilities have never been more democratic — it’s only a matter of time before some madman tries to release a biological agent or hack our power grids. Our computational power is growing exponentially; our agency and sense of control over the algorithms that govern our lives erode rapidly. No, things aren’t linearly getting better or worse; they’re getting BIGGER. The problems and possibilities we face are awesome and terrible, spectacularly-horrifying. The stakes are dizzyingly higher and the fruit in our reach stupendously sweeter.

ONLY TIME can contextualize our pain. What struggles are forgotten, what aspirations were met, what fears went unrealized. Today we live through a global pandemic, an accelerating climate crisis, nationwide protests, and cultural upheaval. In 10 years, this time will surely be remembered as one of turmoil. But what of 50 years? What of a Hundred? One can imagine the textbook excerpts of the future:

…the COVID-19 pandemic saw a large-scale experiment in public spending which revolutionized our understanding of monetary systems and public finance, unleashing new possibilities for…

Journal of Public Finance, p. 97, 2046.

The early ’20s saw a transformation of policing and criminal justice systems in the developed world, and the implementation of decentralized, restorative justice institutions employed by governments today…

Modern Principles of Sociology, Chapter 4, 2062

The United States launched the first commercial vessel with human passengers, the SpaceX Crew Dragon, to the first International Space Station on May 30th, 2020. Contemporary historians mark this as the dawn of…

History of Human Space Colonization Vol. 1, p. 214, 2279

IN MY “end of the world” class, my professor argued that we are obsessed with hope, too easily subdued by optimism, that it prevents us from appreciating the scale of tragedy at hand. Where he saw that quality as our tragic flaw, our hamartia — I believe it is the core of our heroism. We did not achieve the elevation of the human condition by feeling bad about ourselves, we did not liberalize authority structures around the world by feeling guilty about what we stand for. It is irrational hope, an indomitable spirit that got us here. Optimism and pride in the face of tragedy isn’t a character defect, it’s a superpower. If you’re tired of feeling bad, even if you feel guilty about being tired of feeling bad, listen to yourself. It’s the human instinct.

LET US embrace the moment, in its bigness, brilliance and terror. Be proud, be optimistic not because our Nation has been great and the future seems bright, but because it is a prerequisite to make things better. We want our values — equality, human dignity, and liberty — to continue proudly and boldly into the future. Let us be unashamed to be proud when we fail, let us be unapologetic in our optimism when the future seems bleak. If we fly the flag in times like these, let it not be in spite of our moral failures, but in response — as a demand that we live up to our creed.

NEIL A. ARMSTRONG / NASA / GETTY

From what I’ve heard, that good neighbor is continuing with his daily Flag Raising ritual. My friend thinks it comes off as insensitive. My feelings are more optimistic. Whether he continues in flagrant disregard or spite for the moment, or whether it represents some more admirable resolve, I do not know. But as he unfurls that old scarred glory — whose stars tell tales of annexation and domination, but offer a glimpse at our future, whose blood red on pure white symbolize valor but suggest open wounds — as he hoists her high into the blue summer sky and as his neighbors gaze on, perhaps they will feel not a validation of who we are nor a lionization of who we’ve been, but a sobering reminder of all we aspire to be, and immense responsibility of all we represent: THE LAST, BEST HOPE FOR EARTH.

Rambo

PPE student, aspiring galaxy brain

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