This piece originally appeared on AmericanStudies. It is republished here with the author’s permission.
[In honor of Patriot’s Day—a holiday up here in New England, at least—here’s my annual post on the easier and harder forms of patriotism.]
One of my favorite literary exchanges of all time, and the one with which I begin the Introduction to my recently completed fourth book, occurs in the opening chapter of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996; the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series that has been adapted into the popular HBO show). Seven year-old Brandon “Bran” Stark is riding home with his father and brothers from his first experience witnessing one of his father’s most difficult duties as a lord, the execution of a criminal; his father insists that if he is to sentence men to die, he should be the one to execute them, and likewise insists that his sons learn of and witness this once they are old enough. Two of Bran’s brothers have been debating whether the man died bravely or as a coward, and when Bran asks his father which was true, his father turns the question around to him. “Can a man be brave when he is afraid?” Bran asks. “That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father replies.
On the surface the line might seem obvious, an appeal to some of our very trite narratives about courage in the face of danger and the like (narratives that operate in explicit contrast to the ideas of cowardice with which I engaged in this post). But to my mind the moment, like all of Martin’s amazingly dense and complex series, works instead to undermine our easy narratives and force us to confront more difficult and genuine truths. That is, I believe we tend to define bravery, courage, heroism as the absence of fear, as those individuals who in the face of danger do not feel the same limiting emotions that others do and so can rise to the occasion more fully. But Martin’s truth is quite the opposite—that bravery is instead something that is found through and then beyond fear, that it is only by admitting the darker and more potentially limiting realities that we can then strive for the brightest and most ideal possibilities. I find that insight so potent not only because of its potential to revise oversimplifying narratives and force us to confront a complex duality instead, but also because it posits a version of heroism that any individual can achieve—if everyone feels fear in the face of danger, then everyone has the potential to be brave as well.
HBO recently premiered the sixth season of their award-winning series A Game of Thrones; the first season covered all of that first book of Martin’s, the second moved on to book two, and so on for subsequent seasons. I’ve watched season one and have mixed feelings, but no matter what the series has brought Martin’s works and themes to a far wider audience. But if that’s one reason why I’m thinking about this exchange today, the other is the aforementioned Massachusetts-specific holiday: Patriot’s Day. As with our narratives of courage and heroism, I believe that far too many of our ideals of patriotism focus on what I would call the easy kind: the patriotism that salutes a flag, that sings an anthem, that pledges allegiance, that says things like “God bless America” and “greatest country in the world” by rote. Whatever the communal value of such patriotism, it asks virtually nothing of individuals, and does even less to push a nation to be the best version of itself (if anything, it argues that the nation is already that best version). So in parallel to Martin’s line, I would argue for the harder and more genuine kind of patriotism, the kind that faces the darkest realities and strives for the brightest hope through that recognition, the kind that, when asked “Can an American be a patriot if he/she is critical of his/her country?,” replies, “That is the only time an American can be a patriot.”
Happy Patriot’s Day! The patriotic series continues tomorrow.
Ben Railton is Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University. His books and online public scholarship focus on questions of American identity and collective memory.