An American apology: Why the critic and patriot must be one and the same | Opinion

Americans, particularly our leaders, must not detach harsh criticism of our nation from hopeful affection for it. None of us are beyond redemption; neither is our country.

Cameron Smith
  • Critics lashed out at Congresswoman Cori Bush's July 4 tweet, but it would be good to re-read Frederick Douglass's 1854 Independence Day speech.
  • Cameron Smith is a recovering political attorney raising three boys in Nolensville, Tennessee, with his particularly patient wife, Justine.

As I bobbed in the pool, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” played in concert with extravagant fireworks exploding overhead. Patriotic sentiment came easily for me on Independence Day.

Many of my countrymen didn’t share affection for our nation. America isn’t what they hoped it to be. The balance between American devotion and censure not only shapes our national trajectory but also the future of liberty around the world.

I’ll spare you the exposition of all that’s not great. Suffice to say, most of us don’t like where our nation is headed even if we don’t know precisely where we’re going.

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When it comes to our collective identity as a country, everyone’s a critic or a critic of a critic. America is eternally stained by her mistakes, or she is unassailable by any who truly hold her dear. We too easily view criticism of our nation as irreconcilable with deep love for her.

Frederick Douglass wasn't a pessimist

Over the Independence Day holiday, Democrat Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, tweeted out, "When they say that the 4th of July is about American freedom, remember this: the freedom they’re referring to is for White people. This land is stolen land and Black people still aren’t free."

The reaction to Bush’s hot take was quite predictable. From unmitigated support to outraged opposition, most folks didn’t even realize that Bush’s sentiment wasn’t novel.

Frederick Douglass beat her to the punch on July 5, 1852. “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine,” he said. “You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”

And that was his warmup.

Douglass's speech:Written in indignation, Frederick Douglass's 'Fourth of July' speech held divided nation accountable

In a brutalizing speech, Douglass pulled no punches. His words made Bush’s fiery tweet look downright civil. “For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy,” Douglass railed, “America reigns without a rival.”

The key difference between Bush’s social media shot and Douglass’s oration was that the great abolitionist remained hopeful even in his scathing criticism. “Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation,” said Douglass, “I do not despair of this country.”

Love and candor can co-exist

Americans, particularly our leaders, must not detach harsh criticism of our nation from hopeful affection for it. None of us are beyond redemption; neither is our country.

Equally as caustic as hateful critique, blind “patriotism” hobbles our constitutionally-articulated efforts to perfect our union. Supporting an infallible vision of America leads us to defend our indefensible errors. We the people don’t always get it right. Acknowledging that doesn’t make us less patriotic; it makes us honest.

Cameron Smith

We can’t fulfill America’s promise as long as we’re caught between self-loathing and unwarranted delusions of grandeur.

Our national identity crisis creates opportunities for authoritarian regimes who abhor free voices and meaningful political battles. Global powers like China and Russia grow more powerful by the day, depend on heavy-handed social controls, and reject our model of self-governance. America is little more than a historically anomalous infection they wish to contain.

We are in a struggle for the future with ideologies and sovereigns that do not value individual liberty. We must not take that task lightly. More importantly, we must teach the next generation the many facets of what it means to be American.

My wife and I teach our sons that liberty is freedom paired with responsibility. Most Americans enjoy being free; responsibility is and will always be the challenge. The character with which we exercise our freedom ultimately determines whether our future will be worthy of our legacy of liberty.

Even in our bitter moment of national discontent, we must maintain Douglass’s confident hope while striving for a more perfect union. The critic and the patriot must ultimately be one and the same. It’s the only way we can become the America our world needs. 

Cameron Smith is a columnist for the USA Today Network. He has served as counsel to several Republican members of congress and was a enior fellow at R Street, a conservative think tank based in Washington, DC.