Despite the constant criticism, we should all be immensely thankful to be living in the present.
Like many Americans, I tend to find myself pondering over gratitude at this time of year. Whether that is sparked by the increased presence of friends and family, the Zen-like process of preparing a delicious shared meal, or merely an attempt to come up with something good to say at the Thanksgiving table, appreciation is on my mind. Of course, my mind goes first to the personal: my wife and daughter, my family in general, my loyal (and loud) chihuahua, my friends. Then come more general things like (relative) health, prosperity, happiness, and career success. But once I’ve bounced these more typical thoughts around my head for a bit, I continuously return to one broad idea: the glories of the present.
That may sound odd coming from a historian, but I feel it deeply. I adore the past about as much as it is possible to. My office is adorned with historical maps, posters, books, and tchotchkes. My favorite novels are in the public domain. I name houseplants after nineteenth-century British politicians (I’ve got Lords Balfour and Salisbury already). I could probably sink the Titanic (well, maybe the S.S. Minnow) with the number of history books I own. I have busts of both Napoleon and Wellington. I think about the Roman Empire every day.
But I firmly believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that today is the best possible time for a human to be alive. Not only is the 21st century an incredible time to be a member of homo sapiens, the past was far, far worse to live in than most people can imagine. Let us count the ways.
Resettlement, mass migration, and civilizational change are not historical outliers, but the historical norm. Lambasting them as evil is the peak of absurdity.
The term ‘settler colonialism’ has been widely bandied about in regards to Israel since the Hamas atrocities of October 7, mostly by leftists seeking to vilify the Jewish state and excuse or ‘contextualize’ the mass murder carried out by Palestinian terrorists. It has been echoed in protest movements, by online activists, and in serious news and opinion journalism. It has been applied not only to Israel as a nation, but to the United States and most of the West as well. The argument goes that any sort of resistance to such “settler colonialism” for the purpose of reclaiming “stolen land” is justified, if not necessary. The denizens of these purportedly-imperialist nations are therefore fair game for violent “resistance.” In the now-infamous words of a Yale professor (!): “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” Those who use this terminology to make their preferred political points may sound intelligent to the layman, as they are using academic jargon in such a confident manner. But what does this term actually mean? And does it apply to Western history or the Israeli-Hamas conflict?
Love of country must not depend on partisan politics.
As always on July 4, I’ve been thinking a lot about how truly lucky I am to have been born in the greatest country on Earth. I have a deep and abiding love for this place and cannot imagine it any other way. I have great admiration for and interest in other countries – I do write about foreign policy and European history, after all – but nothing compares to America in my heart. Patriotism matters to me and always will. But this seems not to be the case among a growing proportion of our citizenry.
Increasing partisan rancor over the past 15 years has made basic love of country a tricky thing, on both sides of the political divide. Since 2013, polling on patriotism has shown a consistently downward trajectory, with the percentage of respondents saying that they are “extremely” or “very” proud of being American decreasing by 20 points over the decade. The meager 38% of people expressing extreme pride is the lowest in Gallup’s polling history by four points. The partisan split on patriotic feeling – polling shows that Republicans are, on average, prouder of being American than are Democrats – remains, but both sets of voters have seen their patriotism decline markedly. (Similar trends have held true for independents.) These shifts in patriotic feeling tend to correlate with the party in power in Washington. Democrats saw their extreme pride rise under Obama to a peak of 56% in 2013, hit rock bottom under Trump at 22% in 2019, and increase mildly to 26% under Biden in 2022. Over the same period, Republican extreme pride stood at 78% in 2009 to start Obama’s term, dropped to a low of 68% at the end of his stint in office, shot up to 76% in 2019 under Trump, and totally collapsed under Biden to a trough of 58% in 2022. Note the vast differences in similar years, especially 2019 and 2022.
Why this stunning general decline in patriotism? It varies by partisan affiliation, but events and ideology have both played important roles.
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title.”
In this famous passage from Act II Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Bard espouses the idea that the name of something doesn’t define its essence. The philosophical debate over language and reality, form and function, has been ongoing for millennia – from Plato and Aristotle to postmodernists and deconstructionists. I’m generally not someone who believes in the power of labels to define reality, but some labels are indeed important.
One such type of label that is increasingly salient in the modern day is the geonym, or place name. Geographic nomenclature is deeply political, with place names having significant cultural and propaganda value. In scholar Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book Imagined Communities, the author describes nations as groups of people who self-organize into a limited, sovereign community based on some shared feature. Language is one of the prime features of an imagined community, and the names of places and institutions reflect the political and societal realities of the nation. They are deliberately intended to convey civic meaning and serve a particular purpose in uniting and consolidating the shared community around a common orientation.
The idea of a ‘national divorce’ – a parting of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states into separate national agglomerations – has been floating around the conservative ecosystem recently, especially on the fringes of the too-online far-right. This idea has bubbled up several times over the past decades on both sides of the aisle – usually when a preferred presidential candidate loses an election. From the 2004 election spawning ‘Jesusland’ versus ‘United States of Canada’ maps, to the radical right-wingers pushing secession after the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, to the talk of ‘Calexit’ just days after the shock 2016 victory of Donald Trump, secession memes have been rife in 21st century American politics.