Defining and expressing something as complex as American nationalism is no easy task. Fortunately, the Internet hive mind has risen to the challenge by meme-ifying the American spirit: In sharing a picture of a bald eagle on Twitter, you can be ironic, funny, and sincere, all at the same time. For example, a nice specimen from The Atlantic's social-media editor, Matt Ford:
Especially on holidays like the Fourth of July, IRL patriotism is often conveyed in this kind of condensed shorthand, whether by way of burger-grilling or beer-drinking or fireworks-watching. Some of these activities might be intentionally political, but most are only marginally so: When you're grilling, you're probably not thinking to yourself, What do my burgers say about the American polity, anyways? There's only slightly more intentionality with the arch deployment of the "America" meme, which can come in the form of a tweet or Facebook post or Snapchat that relies on "America" or "USA" as a single-word signifier of patriotism and fond, mild irony. "Because America" is even stronger, if slightly more derisive; as my colleague Megan Garber wrote last fall, the use of "because" as a preposition before any word "is exceptionally bloggy and aggressively casual and implicitly ironic."
The question is: Why is all of this so fun? Burgers are fun, qua burgers. Fireworks are so fun, even without the subtle implication that we're still blowing stuff up to celebrate our pummeling of Great Britain 231 years ago. But these things are even more fun when they're tinged with vague, purely aesthetic patriotism; beer is always awesome, but it's more awesome if it's flavored with #Americanspirit.
"Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans," wrote a grumpy Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America after he visited the United States from France during the 1830s. He described a phenomenon he might have called hashtag patriotism, had he been on Instagram:
There is a patriotism which mainly springs from the disinterested, undefinable, and unpondered feeling that ties a man's heart to the place where he was born. This instinctive love is mingled with a taste for old habits, respect for ancestors, and memories of the past; those who feel it love their country as one loves one's father's house. ... It is itself a sort of religion; it does not reason, but believes, feels, and acts. Some nations have in a sense personified their country...
This is a helpful way to understand American spirit in the era of the meme: Everyday things, like beer, take on vague symbolic meaning that is almost apolitical—it's comfort in the familiar, a symbol of a place where you instinctively know you belong, regardless of any reservations you might have about it. Flaws and all, this is our nation to claim, our country to mock; it's a meme all of our own, even if it would have annoyed dead, French political philosophers.
Happy birthday, America.