This core component of American patriotism – the popular conviction in a world-historical role for the US – is unlikely to continue. First, it is increasingly difficult not to notice that in many basic matters of government and society, including healthcare, public education, gender equity, social mobility and prosperity, economic fairness, childcare, environment and more, the US has fallen behind most of the developed world. The US’s world-historical ambitions have simply not kept pace with world history. Secondly, the wars. Wars are nation-making events, but they can also be unmaking ones. If your patriotism is linked to pretensions of a world-historical role, what do you do when the world chooses not to emulate you, or when it (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) doesn’t want your Americanisation project?
There was a moment at the river with my mother long ago, when I asked her why we pray. She told me that prayer was not begging, or asking for things, but an expression of gratitude for the way things are. She looked at me, and behind her the river was not rushing. There were so many spirals in the current of the river, and many undertows.
She saw what I was staring at. “That is your power too,” she said. “The undertow can drown people.” I knew she was pointing to the chaos of what we cannot see, and that the undercurrent—the chaos and conflict beneath every surface—is necessary.