Saturday, March 26, 2011

On patriotism and USA soccer fandom

So I've never put on an american flag poncho, unlike formidable patriot Kid Rock. I've probably never bought a flag in my lifetime. The only times I remember donning patriotic apparel or chanting things like "U-S-A," are when I get riled up to see the USMNT (United States Men's National Team) play. This could be part of a larger series about patriotism in general, but I mainly mean to address sports today.

I own two USA shirts, one is a jersey and the other a vintage T from the '84 olympics in L.A., but I wonder: does this make me a minority in my country? I wonder how many patriotic articles of clothing my peers own. I wonder if they're ever worn, additionally. Part of me thinks there must be something wrong with that, but I'm also fairly certain that I'd fall on the "more patriotic clothing" side of the divide.

When standing for sporting events to honor the flag I feel strange. Two equally powerful thoughts run through my mind simultaneously: 1) Honor the fallen soldiers. Do it. Just think about them. Think about the suffering and how they contributed to your freedom, Aaron. It might not make a lot of sense, but just stand there and THINK. Think think think and think. Thank them from the inside of your brain. .....There. See? Easy. 2) You are opposed to war, so think about what the country means to you in other ways. Think about how hard life would be elsewhere, or something. Yeah, think about that. Get all of the cerebral frustrations out of the way and just think that this place is great. Think it!

You see, I have some misgivings when it comes to being proud of my country, yet I'll turn out for any USMNT match with a flag-bandana around my neck and a redwhiteandblue jersey across my chest.

In my time in Spain and the rest of Europe, I learned to speak Spanish first, even in the middle of Belgium where it was certain no one spoke the language, just to distance myself from the hailstorm of incursions and assumptions against me that were often the result of realizing they were speaking with an american. The man who yelled "Bush is Hitler!!" two inches from my face didn't alter my already dissatisfied view of our president at the time, but he did make me wish I were Canadian, if only for the normal conversation we would instead be having.

All foreign experiences aside, when I consider how much I care about the USMNT, I am reminded that my passion has grown because of the USMNT's underdog status. As americans, we're underdogs in almost nothing. How unexciting does the olympic medal count become when we continue to sit atop it? Isn't it more of a story when we aren't leading the standings? To reduce my/our patriotism or lack thereof to sports would be foolish, though. The reality is, for decades we have sat on top of the leader board of the world as well. Since Britain began to fade as a world power after WWI, it's been the U-S-A's party to reign over.

My lifetime has been an experience of this hegemony, and the centrality of my country on the world scene has only slightly shifted. Things may be changing little by little, but that is beside the point: everyone loves an underdog. My country hasn't been an underdog since I've been alive - neither in the sporting sense nor the political/socio-economic sense. The USMNT is one of few (and probably permanent) refuges for the underdog lovers in this country. There's just not as much joy in watching your country's teams accomplish what they should be able to accomplish at the olympics when compared to watching Landon Donovan bury the loose ball in extra time against Algeria at the World Cup. If we were once a nation that claimed the underdog spirit as a fixture of the american way (i'm thinking the Revolutionary War here), that spirit has long dissipated in almost every international arena but soccer.

So tonight I'll go wearing my shirt to watch the USMNT play Argentina, no longer wondering why I only bear these colors for this particular event: the spirit of the underdog still lives.


Kate Lechler said...

This is thought-provoking. Your response to standing up for the flag or the national anthem is similar to mine. And I own no patriotic clothing, and don't care to. But it's interesting that sports changes that feeling, or that willingness to participate in patriotic discourse.

Hmmm. Thoughts R Good.

Adam Blakeley said...


El Vie said...

Well, after reading this I can't stop thinking about my time in the USA where I got the impression that everybody has to be proud of their country. I don't know why you Americans are like that. No other country needs that patriotic spirit in any way. We stand up for the flag at soccer games but thats it...and we don't feel proud of our country, we feel with our soccer team!
It's funny how you guys handle that and how you guys are proud of your country even though there are so many poor, homeless and unhappy people, so much air pollution, wars that make no sense (but at least you're thinking of the poor soldiers that died, right?)and a bad health care system (not to mention a few other things that are definitely not to be proud of like too many overweight people etc.)...sometimes I really don't understand you...what's there that makes you so proud?

aaron wk said...

Thanks for the comment, El Vie. You nailed it, and that is exactly what I was trying to say: I am NOT proud of my country for lots and lots of reasons, many of which you named. My question is WHY I all of a sudden I do feel pride when I watch the USMNT. Maybe if you thought about it a little more, on some level you are proud of your country when you cheer your national team, in the sense that those people represent you and your country.

Where did you spend your time in the USA? I'm curious. I am surprised you didn't interact with those of us that wish the USA was doing better taking care of ourselves, wasn't involved in three wars, etc. These are not things that make me proud of my country! Just the opposite - they frustrate me and wish we were better.

To answer your question: "What's there that makes you so proud?" I would say the thing that makes me WANT to have pride are the ideals the country was founded on. The thing that makes me not have much pride, though, is how short we fall of those ideals. It's not true that no other country needs patriotic spirit, though. At least in my experience, many of them do, but it is a complicated matter much like it is in the USA: there are things to be proud of and not proud of.

Where are you from?

El Vie said...

I am from Germany and I worked in the US as a nanny for almost a year (In NJ). And I have to say, the people I lived with treated me like I was worth nothing. I changed the host family a few times but it was always the same.
And almost all of the other nannies told me the same thing...that they think they are worth more than them. They weren't even interested in my home country. They always talked about their origins ("I am half German and half Irish"), but they don't even know anything about those countries and when you want to talk about that they are not interested because they are AMERICANS (at least it seemed like that to me)...
So that's why I had to respond to your post, it just reminded me so much of all that pride I experienced, when they didn't even know what to be proud of and when they acted like they didn't care what somebody thinks of the US or of them.

aaron wk said...

That's a shame, El Vie. As if there weren't enough things to feel bad about my country, now I feel bad about your experience, too! :)

You know, it's an interesting part of the american mindset (in general) to not care very much about our cultural heritage. I'm part English, but I really have no interest in those ethnic roots at all. I think since this country was formed out of so many immigrants from so many different places, we don't have a very strong sense of ethnic pride. What we have instead is this vague idea of "american-ness" that we all share, and that idea supersedes all other origins for a lot of people. For example, even though lots and lots of people are of Irish descent here, you might never know that until a day like St. Patrick's Day which celebrates irish heritage. It's weird that someone would take pride in something that doesn't seem to matter at all to them, but that's what happens a lot of times. You are right: a lot of americans are proud, but don't know exactly what they are proud of.

Anyway, it's a complicated issue. I had tons of fun in germany when I was there in 2006 for two weeks. Your country is great, but I wasn't there long enough to really get a sense of the country's pride unless we were watching a Deutschland match :). What can you tell me about it?

"The mere sense of living is joy enough" said...

It's very true! No one's a fan of the all round winner- not when it's been just him for the past 30 years or more! But the one that's trying to get there- he gets all the support to lead him on. It's quite incredible actually. :)

Lina Reznicek-Parrado said...

Today, I was yelled at for making an "unAmerican" remark as I chanted that I, finally, as I received citizenship to the United States, was becoming "Americun". It fills my heart with joy to know that "patriotism" isn't necessarily a priority for every American, and it makes me even happier that it's an American who has traveled outside of his country who realizes that there's no need to not be an underdog - that not coming out on top has many lessons (and GOOD lessons) to teach, too.