Someone tells me that it’s thirty-five dollars a piece for those impressive displays of purple, green, and gold that rise and pop and disappear before we have time to fully register the impossibility of their beauty. It’s the surprise that keeps us watching. What next? When? How big? Every new constellation is a miracle. The ball of green and red that hangs in the sky like wire mesh; the umbrella of diamonds that forms in an instant. Thirty-five dollars sounds too low, and even then we watch thousands erupt in the sky.
Rutherford B. Hayes, our host’s grand-dog, is growling at a mixed breed across the street. Every grand, dual-porch house on this tree-lined street in residential Lincoln is home to a Brittany Spaniel, a Dalmation-Ridgeback, or a noble mongrel. In some houses there are cats, too, with designated square footage in the basement for kitty litter. Entire conversations start and stop on the subject of these non-humans: their bedtime routines, wet food/dry food preferences, the nicknames they respond to, or won’t. This July 4th, Ruthie the mutt is given extra treats after dinner. This, despite the fact that yesterday she took a piece out of the ear of a squat bulldog named Tank. But then, this is what dogs do.
The main fireworks go on for half an hour at the nearby country club, and we watch them through the trees at the top of the street, missing only the ground show, and the music that accompanies each burst. We sit in the middle of the road, leaning against a center divider, and not a car passes. When one does, it is a U-haul, which we imagine is carrying more crackers. All around us, teenagers compete with the official display, setting off what start like rockets, and end like confetti in the sky.
“Are you more impressed with the fireworks or our patriotism?” Vicky asks. She is half-joking. An academic in Lincoln (which is, after all, a university town), our hosts are part of the demographically small but politically significant population of liberals in the blood red American heartland. I smile in response, but ponder the question. Is this patriotism? Am I impressed? These fireworks are incredible but no match for the official display over the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day, or the unofficial, dangerous play with fire in any number of Indian towns.
Of course, it’s not about the fireworks—or, not only about them. Patriotism, or love of country, is one of the rhetorical sticks used to beat political candidates into the servile wearing of flag-pins and neighbors into the knee-jerk hanging of flags. It is the poisonous ideological alibi of Birthers and xenophobes. But it is also a powerful, motivating force of national kinship, a fount of community feeling, and a source of shared strength. What is patriotism? Do I feel it?
In his canonical essay, “What is a nation?” (1882), the philosopher Ernest Renan argued that there is something about the nation that exceeds the bonds (and bounds) of race, language, religion, economic interests, military goals, and geography. What binds people to a nation are their substantive experiences of, relationships to, and aspirations for the past, present, and future. “The essence of a nation,” Renan wrote, “is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.”
The first part of Renan’s statement is easily understood: A nation’s people have suffered, enjoyed, and hoped together; these are the many things they have in common. They share a past, they share the desire to live together in the present, and they share the hope of perpetuating their heritage in the future. What is important is their collective will, not any preexisting ethnic, linguistic, or other ties.
But what of the second half—that they (we) “have forgotten many things?” Numerous scholars have worked through the rich, theoretical provocation of Renan’s “forgetting.” On one level, it is precisely those other bonds (of race, language, religion, and so on) that Renan thought we needed to forget, in order to give ourselves over to the higher spiritual principle of the nation. On another level, what we have to forget is that we haven’t relinquished those bonds, that we are fundamentally, primordially particular and different, and yet nevertheless must work to fashion an inclusive collective future.
Forget our differences, or defer them? Assert our differences, or mask them for the moment? The work of forgetting goes on everyday all over the world, in big and small ways. From the “forgetting” of slavery and segregation, to the “forgetting” of Partition, to the “forgetting” of a little Girl Scout who asked if I spoke English, we all do work on ourselves, our histories, and our memories in order to live where we are and live with ourselves, whoever we are. Whether we left India and were reborn as American citizens, or were born U.S. nationals in a country still suspicious of non-white birth certificates, we must do the qualified work of forgetting, in order to remember and assert who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.
In the heavy heat and humidity of a Nebraska summer night, I watched fireworks and ate ice-cream with descendants of Jamestown settlers, children of Holocaust survivors, born citizens, naturalized immigrants, and a puppy of uncertain origin. Everyone in our group was wearing shorts, everyone except for me, and I wrapped my cardigan around my waist as we waited for the grand finale.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.