By Adam Piore
Irving Berlin immigrated to the U.S. at age 5. His family fled Russia to escape a wave of murderous pogroms directed at Jews. His mother often murmured “God Bless America” as he was growing up. “And not casually, but with emotion which was almost exaltation,” Berlin later recalled.
“He always talked about it like a love song,” says Sheryl Kaskowitz, the author of God Bless America, the Surprising History of an Iconic Song. “It came from this really genuine love and a sense of gratitude to the U.S.”
It might seem ironic that someone born in a foreign land would compose a song that so powerfully expressed a sense of national belonging—that this song embraced by an entire nation was the expression of love from an outsider for his adopted land. In the U.S., a nation of immigrants built on the prospect of renewal, it’s not the least bit surprising. It is somehow appropriate.
Patriotism is an innate human sentiment. It is part of a deeper subconscious drive toward group formation and allegiance. It operates as much in one nation under God as it does in a football stadium. Group bonding is in our evolutionary history, our nature. According to some recent studies, the factors that make us patriotic are in our very genes.
But this allegiance—this blurring of the lines between individual and group—has a closely related flipside; it’s not always a warm feeling of connection in the Cleveland-bound lounge car. Sometimes our instinct for group identification serves as a powerful wedge to single out those among us who are different. Sometimes what makes us feel connected is not a love of home and country but a common enemy.
That’s why politicians so often invoke patriotism to demonize the other side, subtly implying that those who aren’t with us, are against us. It’s a partisan strategy, as predictable every election year as campaign buttons and patriotic bunting. When we identify as “Americans,” or citizens of any country, there’s something about a perceived threat, or slight to our nation, that works just as powerfully as a beautiful song to turn what might seem an intellectual idea into something emotional, raw, and subconscious. The instincts that drive patriotism, scientists explain, can express humanity’s best side, and its worst.
Picture: English: Cherie A. Thurlby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons