Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rethinking Patriotism for Millennials: Beyond Answering a Truly Dumb Ass Question

I check Twitter as part of my morning routine, and as it often does, Pew's "Daily Number" caught my eye. Today was especially relevant for me because (a) I'm a sucker for generational studies and (b) my generation was the topic of discussion.
 Here's the gist of their findings:
Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%). Millennials were also the most likely generation to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%).
I take no conceptual issue with this work. It's well done, as is most all of what Pew does. My issue is with the framing, in particular the title: A generational gap in American patriotism.

My patriotism does not depend on answering in the affirmative to a question so asinine as, "Is America the greatest country on earth?" Unfortunately, I suspect it does rest on that answer for a lot of Americans, which likely explains the gap in reported rates of patriotism.

First of all, the greatest country question is pretty loaded. I'd wager that most Americans who say the United States is the greatest country probably reason as follows: "I live here, I like it, and therefore it is the best." Nevermind that most Americans have never even been to another country (only 36% of us hold valid passports), which severely limits even anecdotal comparisons.

I consider myself to be patriotic in that I am devoted to my country -- which is the dictionary definition of the term -- but I would say based on odds alone (the United States is just one of 196 countries) that we're not number one.

But then again, it depends on the criteria we're using to rank nations.

If we're talking economic prowess, military might, or (sadly) incarceration rate, the United States tops the list. But what about the country with the happiest population? Switzerland is currently numero uno, though in years past it has often been Denmark. What about price and quality of health care? That goes to France. How about education? Finland is the winner there.

I think you get my point as to why determining which nation is truly the greatest is a complicated matter.

It might help to think of it in terms of those best-rock-album-of-all-time conversations you've had with friends over a few beers. My answer is typically The Beatles' "Revolver." But there are dozens of other candidates; perhaps the other I most often hear is the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street." And just because I didn't put "Exile" atop my list doesn't mean I don't think it's a damn good record, just maybe not the best.

In much the same way, not believing that America is the greatest country on earth, period, end of discussion, doesn't mean I'm unpatriotic or that I dislike America. I'm devoted to what I consider to be the founding and most critical principles of the United States: you are free to determine your own destiny, to make a better life for yourself and your family, to live with few constraints on your day-to-day activities, and -- most importantly -- to question the established way of doing things in the hopes of producing something better.

I worry about America. We've got problems. We rank 37th in health care, 17th in education, 14th in happiness, and 1st in incarceration rates. We have serious issues concerning wealth inequality and an eroding middle class further threatened by holes in our safety net programs and unemployment that hovers around 8%. We also have difficulties facing long-term problems, climate change and the never-ending accrual of debt chief among them. And every one of these problems is further complicated by our currently polarized political system.

Still, despite all these issues and our apparent lack of patriotism, Millennials are the lease likely generation to ring America's death knell. Quite the opposite: Millennials are the most optimistic generation about the state of our nation and our ability to improve both individually and collectively. I would argue that a hopeful outlook for America's future is a better measure of patriotism than a response to a truly dumb ass question.

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