How American Millennials Are The First Generation To Be Both Critical And Patriotic

As a young American traveler, I have been met with both positivity and, at times, hostility in various countries around the world, largely depending on the surroundings. I believe that this reflects a great deal about my country’s relationship with other countries and the way that the US and its citizens are perceived around the globe.

But I also believe that this is changing, and rapidly. Largely as a product of the economic recession, more and more young Americans are leaving their country to travel and work abroad. Consequently, young Americans have a changing perception of their country and the way that Americans see themselves.

I’m 25 years old and by no means an expert on the world at this point, but I have been fortunate enough to do a fair amount of traveling in my life so far.  Over the past two years that has gone into overdrive as I have lived, worked, studied and taught in two different countries and have travelled to a number of others in the process.

In that capacity, I have done my best to observe and learn. I have attempted to be a student of the world, whether or not I have been successful in this endeavor is still open to discussion.

In 2006, when I was 18, I traveled to Ireland with my mother as a high school graduation gift. A large portion of her family came to America from Ireland and I’ve always been intrigued by the place. It's one of the friendliest countries I have ever visited, and one of the most beautiful. Yet, even in the perpetually charming Emerald Isle, which has an extremely strong relationship and history with the US, it was apparent that many people held negative views of America.

During that trip to Ireland, my mother and I visited the Irish town of Killarney. On our first evening we went out to hear some music at a local pub. At one point, the lead singer asked the crowd, “Are there any Americans in here tonight?!”  My mother and I reluctantly raised our hands. The singer, an old Irish man with bright blue eyes, a thick white beard, and scraggly white hair, laughed and said “Well, this next song is dedicated to your president. I love you and your country but hate Bush!”  What followed was a lovely song about President George W. Bush and the 2003 Iraq War that employed a four-letter-word that begins with “F.”

That this memory from Ireland perfectly illustrates the love-hate relationship that much of the world has with the United States (which was obviously at an extreme during the Bush years). It’s rarely good to generalize, but in my experience, most people around the world are fond of Americans and American culture, but deeply critical of the US government and its activities around the world. And in many ways, that seems very fair.

I’m going to generalize here again, but I do feel strongly that most Americans, particularly those who travel, are friendly people who have open minds and are curious about the world and its diverse array of people and cultures. At the same time, it is hardly a secret that over the past 100 years, the US government has been involved in a number of dubious activities across the world, some of which were outright immoral and illegal (and it many ways, this trend is still evident). More than that, many of these “activities” have had a reverberating and negative impact on people in countries around the globe.

In a recent speech on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin was deeply critical of US foreign policy.  The US government and foreign policy community, and much of the world for that matter, has called Russia’s move a violation of international law. In response to the US, Putin stated, “They tell us that we are violating the norms of international law. First of all, it’s good that they at least remember that international law exists.”

While Putin is hardly a commendable individual, and it’s difficult to condone his actions in Ukraine, he does have a point. The US arguably violated international law with its invasion of Iraq, and many feel that its current use of drone and drone strikes violates international law and national sovereignty since many strikes occur in countries with which the US is not currently at war.

Dr. Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor of international dispute resolution at Notre Dame University, argues that “We are killing people with drones and other means outside our conflict zones, in Yemen, in Pakistan and in Somalia… In these three countries, everyone we kill is a civilian and the only number that matters is total numbers.”  The US drone program has received criticism from a number of angles, and a recent report from Human Rights Watch has argued that US drone strikes are unjustified and a violation of the laws of war.

Hence, it is apparent that the US receives widespread criticism from both within and outside of its borders. Much of which is warranted.

That being said, the United States, and its government, is also widely admired around the globe for its generally progressive mentality and history. While many might be critical of specific policies of the US government, there seems to be a general view of the US is a democratic entity that does try its best to be a benevolent global actor, but sometimes makes a gigantic mess of things in the process.  Thus, it’s not surprising that many people have ambivalent feelings towards the US, its government, culture and people.

During my time abroad, I’ve inevitably had a number of conversations with various individuals about the US, its culture, and its foreign policy. A lot of non-American people have expressed surprise at my ability and willingness to be critical of the US, which in many ways is both an insult and a compliment.

From what I my experiences abroad have shown, most people around the world view Americans as quite close-minded people.  Generally, even the most liberal American is viewed as conservative by European standards. To be fair, perceptions about what the terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean and represent are starkly different in the US than in Europe and the wider world.

But I digress; I believe that presuming that Americans are unanimously uncritical of their government and overtly nationalistic is an enormous overgeneralization and a false stereotype. While this is a pretty widespread perception around the world, most stereotypes offer an element of truth. Truthfully, many Americans are critical of the US government and its history, but many refer to these individuals as unpatriotic.

So when someone tells me, “You’re not the typical American, it’s refreshing to hear someone from the US be critical of their government,” I am filled with a complicated mixture of thoughts and emotions.

I am extremely proud to be American, regardless of being very critical and in some ways, ashamed of elements of our history and culture. Despite my pride, it is very difficult for me to come to terms with some of the abhorrent truths of American history, policy and culture: Slavery, the horrendous treatment of Native Americans, the paradox of a population with a deep pride in the immigrant tradition of the US yet the perpetual mistreatment of immigrant groups, our obsession with guns, our militaristic tendencies, the abhorrent treatment of our veterans (many are homeless), and our support for dictatorial regimes around the globe… The list goes on and on, but those are certainly some of the highlights.

America has also been a land of innovation, invention and social progress. Since the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in North America in Jamestown in 1607, millions of people have come to the US from around the globe to pursue their own view of a “better life.”

The world continues to look to America as a standard for the equitable treatment of citizens, despite the fact that there is still a lot of room for improvement. Like it or not, the United States of America has been a symbol of the pioneer spirit since before it gained independence, which is precisely why it continues to capture the attention of the world.

That being said, it is a wonder that the US even exists. Consider the very beginnings of the country. The lost colony of Roanoke, which preceded Jamestown, failed and there are still myths about what happened to the settlers there. Some still believe they wandered off into the wilderness and joined Native American tribes. Jamestown, which was established shortly after Roanoke, essentially only survived because of the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop. Before that, the colonists were dying at an alarming rate and were so hungry that many of them resorted to cannibalism.

Flash forward to the War for American Independence. A small group of ill-equipped and poorly trained colonists decided to go to war with the greatest empire in the world at the time, Great Britain. Imagine taking Muhammad Ali in his prime and putting him into the ring against Justin Bieber. Unfortunately, the US colonies are Justin Bieber in this parallel. In essence, the odds were completely against the US colonists in almost every category from the start, but somehow, they were able to carve out a nation for themselves.

Since that time, the US states have often quarreled amongst themselves. If you think that the states have their differences today, they were by no means united in the years following the War for Independence. This is precisely why less than 100 years after the War for American Independence, the US became consumed by the bloodiest war in its short but dynamic history – the American Civil War. This war nearly destroyed the US, and it claimed over 600,000 American lives.

At present, it often feels that the US is just as polarized as it was during the Civil War.  The US Congress is a source of humor for people around the globe, and a constant migraine for the American people. At this point, “compromise” is now an extremely foreign word in Washington DC. The bipartisan system of the US now holds the country and its people in a chokehold that threatens to decimate the nation and its progress.

The history of the United States has been defined by a debate over individual rights and freedoms and the need for a strong central government.  The US is best when it finds compromise and balance between those values and worst when those collide – which pushes both sides to radical positions. The politics of the US are currently excessively emotive, leaving hardly any room for rational thought.

At this point, American Democrats and Republicans spend more time being critical of one another than they do paying attention to the problems that the US faces. There is a pettiness that pervades American politics.  Yet, there is still widespread belief in American exceptionalism.

As Peter Beinart noted in a recent article for the National Journal Magazine, “American exceptionalism does not simply mean that America is different from other countries. (After all, every country is different from every other one.) It means that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it’s an exception to the global rule.”

For pious believers in this sentiment America is essentially infallible, and it is wrong to apologize for, or even acknowledge, our mistakes around the globe. In fact, during his 2012 campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney wrote a book called "No Apology."  In this book, Romney argued that Obama apologizes for the nation overseas, and that this reveals his disbelief in America’s greatness, or exceptionalism.

As the Washington Post highlights, Obama hardly apologized for anything, and frequently cited his belief in American exceptionalism. Hence, Romney’s claims were based on false assertions and more than anything, were a product of political rivalry.

But, what if Obama had “apologized” for the nation? What would be so wrong with that?  Is it not admirable to admit when one is wrong?  Isn’t the first step to reconciliation an apology? And isn’t the US in deep need of reconciliation with many nations and peoples across the globe?  Would it not be in the interests of humanity for the world’s greatest power to display just an ounce of humility in an attempt to promote global solidarity?

Hypothetically, it would be ridiculous to believe that any POTUS would come out and apologize on behalf of the United States for everything it has done “wrong” throughout its history. First, so much that has been done is irreversible. Second, perceptions of right and wrong are subjective, and history is largely based on interpretation.

That being true, Romney’s critique of Obama is based on the belief that it is wrong to admit when America is wrong, or that it is wrong to own up to one’s mistakes. Given that a large portion of the US voted for Romney, it is safe to say that others share his views.

In his book, Romney stated, “I will not and I will never apologize for America. I don’t apologize for America, because I believe in America.”  In February 2011, speaking about Obama, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated, “I think he made a practice of trying to apologize for America. I personally am proud of America.”

Why does excessive pride have to be a fundamental quality for many Americans?  Why can’t we own up to our mistakes and still be proud?  In ancient Greece, it was widely believed that hubris would lead to punishment by the Gods.  The proverb “pride goeth (goes) before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Book of Proverbs 16:18), or “pride goeth before the fall,” sums up what the ancient Greeks believed quite succinctly.

While Romney’s remarks about Obama and “apologizing for America” were made well over a year ago, they are still extremely relevant. The ability to be introspectively critical is what the United States needs perhaps more than any other quality.  Self-criticism is often a direct product of owning up to one’s mistakes or faults.  Simply put, it is a healthy way to apologize for past transgressions.

The US needs to be critical of its broken and polarized system, which is currently failing millions of people on a number of levels: healthcare, immigration reform, education, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, gun law reform, and more. America has learned the hard way that rash decisions can have devastating consequences for many years to come.  This is precisely why it is ludicrous that individuals like Romney and John McCain advocate for a stronger military response to Russia in Ukraine.

Romney has argued that the world has lost respect for America as a result of Obama’s presidency. Perhaps he really means that the world fears the US less as a result of Obama’s more diplomatic approach to foreign affairs. And, Romney seems to forget that Obama’s election restored much of the world’s faith and respect for the US, which had almost been irrevocably tarnished by the Bush administration.

It has become abundantly clear to me that the majority of people outside of the US have little to no respect for the GOP, which is widely viewed as an anachronistic entity and a detriment to the progress of the country. I watched the 2012 presidential election unfold from a large pub in Glasgow, Scotland, full of people from all corners of the world.  When Obama came on the television screen, the room cheered and clapped. When Romney came on the screen, there were boos all around.

The world does not want to see the US act unilaterally. It does not want to see a return to the policies of the Bush administration.  Obama has advocated for a more diplomatic approach to foreign affairs for those very reasons, and while he is far from perfect, it is clear that much of the world welcomes this trend and hopes to see it expand and continue.

The US has learned repeatedly that going at it alone is not necessarily the best policy, despite the nation’s immense military capabilities and influence around the globe. Essentially, the US needs to learn to cooperate on both a domestic and foreign level if it hopes to move forward as a nation and a people. When two parties have quarreled for a lengthy period, cooperation can only occur after reconciliation. Hence the need to swallow our pride and own up to our mistakes.

In the article mentioned above, Peter Beinart acknowledges that many young Americans have begun to turn away from traditional views of American exceptionalism.  Millennials are statistically proven to be more globally minded, less fond of militarism, less guided by religion in their politics, more diverse and less discriminatory. Millennials are also statistically less likely to be fooled by the illusion of economic mobility in our country or the “American Dream” and are more fond of the tenets of socialism.

Many young Americans are fed up with the status quo and want things to change ASAP. It would behoove many incumbent politicians to pay attention to this trend, or they will be remembered as the individuals who facilitated the demise of the globe’s foremost economic and military power.

Being a proud American should not have to go hand-in-hand with the support of foolish policies and a refusal to acknowledge America’s past transgressions. Rather, being a proud American should mean standing up for what one believes in, regardless of whether that involves an impassioned critique of America, its past, or its current government.

I have always believed that a true patriot can be defined as an individual who is willing to admit what is wrong with his or her country because it means they desire change and improvement for their fellow citizens. Patriotism does not have to denote blind support, nor should it.  In order for a problem to be solved, it must first be acknowledged. Or as Thomas Edison wisely stated, “Discontent is the first necessity of progress.”

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”  – Abraham Lincoln

Photo credit: Shutterstock