Patriotism-is it a dirty word? by Guest Author, Ellen Sussman

I came of age in the turbulent 60’s and early 70’s. There were lots of reasons to hate America – or at least its government. In fact, let’s set the record straight right away: it was great to live in America in that decade and to feel a part of the movement that hated the government. We created a remarkable community of Americans banded together with a mighty purpose – how American is that? It just happened to be that our purpose was to overturn the establishment which included the government, our parents, the rules of society as we knew them.

I remember my first taste that the era had ended. I was a big basketball fan and took a boyfriend to see a 76ers game in Philly. We had great seats, a couple of rows from the floor, center stage. The national anthem played and I wouldn’t stand up. The boyfriend was horrified. So was everyone else around me. Hey, wait a second. Where were all my comrades then? Had they already exchanged their tie-dyed shirts for business suits?

Patriotism came back into style. Even I got on-board for awhile. I lived in Paris for five years, from 1988 – 1993 and realized, as ex-pats often do, that I was, in fact, very much American, and for many good reasons, pretty damn proud of the fact. I loved Paris and still dream of living there again someday. But I became an American amongst all those foreigners.

And then came W. It’s fashionable to be anti-American again, though again, what we’re really talking about is anti-war and anti-government policies and anti-domination by the religious right. Obama is bumping up against this – and so is Michelle who had to get really really clear about when she’s proud to be an American and when she’s not so proud.

July 4th – a time to celebrate? I’ve never celebrated this holiday. I’ve always felt squeamish about paper plates with flag designs and folks dressed in red white and blue. But this year, on Independence Day, with Obama running for president, I do feel proud to be American and hopeful about real change in our country.

I titled this blog: Patriotism – is it a dirty word? I’ve just finished a phenomenal three week book tour for my new book, DIRTY WORDS: A LITERARY ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SEX. In the book I challenge the notion that sexual terminology is “dirty” – and I (with the help of 94 amazing contributors) encourage the reader to celebrate the so-called dirty words. (Though we’re still up against a lot of barriers – many of our country’s book stores won’t put the book on the shelves!)

What about patriotism? I love the America that gave me the experiences of my rebellious youth – and I love the America that is responding to Obama’s call for unity and hope. Happy July Fourth to all of you.

ELLEN SUSSMAN’s Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia Of Sex, was published by Bloomsbury in 2008. Her anthology, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, was published by W.W. Norton in 2007 and became a New York Times Editors Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Seller. She is the author of the novel, On a Night Like This, (Warner Books, 2004) also a San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller. It has been translated into six languages. Her website is

13 Replies to “Patriotism-is it a dirty word? by Guest Author, Ellen Sussman”

  1. Good morning, Ellen. Up here in Canada we seem to practice self-loathing, along with government loathing, on a regular basis. I realize this is not the kind of inspiring movement you’re talking about, though. We were in the position, during Viet Nam of people coming here to dodge the draft and are, for the most part, a more lefty kind of society compared to America. So…patriotism might be considered a dirty word here too.

    I do, however, enjoy fireworks, bbqs and find your current political race quite fascinating!

  2. Thanks for visiting, Ellen. Your books sound fascinating – I’m definitely going to look them up, ever a sucker for all things dirty!

    I think up here in Canada, we are a little more laid back about our patriotism, but we are still proud of our country, even though we know it could always be better (with a healthy knowledge that it can also ALWAYS be worse). Happy 4th to our friends to the south and here’s to a SAFE holiday!

  3. I’m proud that I live in a country where I can criticize the government and still (so far, anyway…ahem) retain my freedom! I celebrate the Fourth and define my patriotism any way I want. Those Revolutionary era rebels were the ultimate rabble rousers and would probably would have cheered for your activism, Ellen.

  4. As an American who hasn’t lived in the US since 94 I found this post really interesting. I love that both the US (and my adopted home of Canada) allows for the discussion of differing views. It is through those discussions that we grow. I become most angry when discussing those views becomes somehow wrong or unpatriotic.

    Thanks for coming by.

  5. My husband and I actually went house-hunting in Canada after W won his second term. We came close to buying a place on Salt Spring Island but couldn’t make it happen. who knows — someday. I do love Canada.

    But yes, having the freedom to protest is built into the our system here. We need it and love it and practice it.

    Interesting to hear from you Canadians about your patriotic views! thanks for your comments, all.

  6. Okay, so now I want to know more about book stores not wanting to stock Dirty Words. What’s the deal? And is it indies, chains or what?

    I make a lot of jokes about hoping my book gets banned somewhere so that I can become rich and famous, but really, it would make me mad! (Not to mention it’s unlikely to happen.)

  7. Ellen,

    Great post, the book sounds amazing.

    I have over the years, felt the same way that you do. When Michelle Obama said, “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback” I knew what she meant, because I’ve felt those same feelings. To me, she was speaking a truth.

    I have always loved my country, would not want to be anything but an American, but there have been times in my life that I’ve not been proud of our actions. And now, for the first time in a really long time, I feel like we might actually be on the right track.

    I was in London on a book tour in January 2003, just a few months before the Iraq war officially began. George Bush was scrambling around to secure allies, most of the world was not on board, and the general consensus in London was that our President was manipulating the truth for access to oil, and that America as a country, was acting like a bully.

    I felt embarrassed for our country’s actions, because frankly, I thought the Londoners were right.

    When I saw the photographs of the abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib — I was was embarrassed, not proud, that my country could participate in something so horrible, so inhumane.

    And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one who finds it ironic that we’re running around the world telling other countries how to run a democratic election when our 2000 Presidential race was basically decided by a single woman on the payroll in the Sunshine state. Who was winging it.

    I think as Americans we are honored to live here, and that we have an obligation to be stewards of the ideals of our founders and our people.

    I also think we’re pretty damned lucky to have this conversation without the fear that someone will show up in the middle of the night and drag us off to jail for speaking our minds.

    When Obama speaks, I can see the country I want to live in. I see hope. I see the real deal.

    Most importantly, I see a future I can believe in.

    Deb Lisa

  8. great post, Lisa. thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Danielle, the bookstore thing is really frustrating. We — both my publisher and I — knew we were taking a real risk with the cover of Dirty Words. There are all those dirty words, just winking at you! (I wrote an essay on about how I love my cover. don’t know how to link it here.) Of course, Borders and Barnes and Nobles has trouble with the book. I talked to a BN bookstore manager in NY who said there was no way they would put the book on a table — they wouldn’t even put it on the front shelves. They decided to bury it in the back of the store under reference. Even more surprising though is this: while on tour, I talked at length to the manager of a small independent bookstore who loves the book and is hand-selling to everyone he can — BUT — he can’t put the book ANYWHERE in his store. It’s hidden behind the information desk. He brings it out to show customers he knows will love it and hides it from everyone else. HELP! This is making me crazy. It’s 2008. Most radio shows won’t have me on because they’re scared I’ll break FCC rules by getting all potty-mouthed on them, despite my publicist’s assurances that I can talk about the book — and sex — without using the illegal dirty words. (Yes, George Carlin, we love you and miss you.) (and still need you!) So I’m thrilled about all the amazing press DIRTY WORDS is getting (Elle Magazine, O Magazine, Nylon, Self, Playboy, Penthouse — and just today and major rave on NPR!) — but I’m scared that folks won’t make the effort to find the book — since it won’t be sitting on one of the tables in the front of the store. Anyway, that’s my publishing rant for the day. thanks for listening.

  9. Ellen, that’s CRAZY! When you said “bookstores” I was thinking maybe small towns, backwater places, not major chains. I’m just shocked. Now I’m going to have to check where they’ve put it in Indigo Chapters.

    Great news about the coverage though–there are some major scores there!

    I love your cover too and actually, I read your post on Readerville the other day.

    Happy 4th of July and thanks so much for coming!

  10. Hi Ellen!
    Thanks for visiting and for this thought-provoking piece. I know precisely what you’re talking about and I wrestle with this all the time. I cannot stand how there are those factions of our country who cloak themselves in faux patriotism and yet are the first to chastise those they choose to deem “unpatriotic”. For this reason I really tend to shy away from patriotism, in much the same way I tend to bristle at religiosity used as a weapon against others. These to me are private feelings that are best kept to oneself. How every person feels is a deeply personal entitlement and just like sex, hey, it’s your thing. Keep it to yourself.
    What I do love about Obama is how he–or the notion of what he represents–has empowered a generation of young people who have felt from a very young age extremely disenfranchised. This, to me, is hugely patriotic, this sense that these young people have been given back their sense of country. Bring it on, Barack!!!

  11. Years ago when my girlfriend & I were taking the 3 mth. obligatory course to be volunteers at Planned Parenthood. One of our first excercises as a group was to verbalize ALL and dirty words we knew about sex and the sexual organs. There was a wide age & cultural mix in the group and we were astounded at some of the stuff we had not heard of before and knew nothing about. The “Golden Shower” was very enlightening (?) to us. I look forward to reading Ellen’s book to see her definition of the “dirty words” in our culture now.
    Oh BTW the exercise was meant to desensitize us to the language we would be hearing as we couselled clients at Planned Parenthood.

  12. “Patriotism-is it a dirty word? No it is not. It was kept clean at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Bellau Wood, Tarawa, Heartbreak Ridge, Ia Drang Valley, and Kuwait. (Someone once said that in all it’s wars the United States has only asked for enough foreign land to bury those that liberated that same land. Thanks to my daughter, I was given the privilege of seeing the military cemetary at Normandy, France. I can’t think of it even today without getting a little chocked up.) And to those who say the country participated in atrocities at Abu Ghraib, I would like to remind them; that same country court also martialed and sentenced to prison the individuals who did that. Would somebody please tell me the trials by Germany of those who exterminated Jews at Auschwitz or of the Japanese trials of those who conducted the Bataan Death March. When serving in SE Asia in the mid 60’s, I saw pictures of what some Vietnamese had done to women and children. It went way beyond humiliation. IT WAS TORTURE at least while they were still alive. That “enlightenment” was sponsored by a government.

    And to those who are such strong Barack Obama followers, please tell me what he has done other than give a good speech. He’s changed his mind on most of what he ran on from getting us out of Iraq in 2009, whether he supports the Washington DC law on gun registration, and so on.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a strong suppporter of McCain and will probably have to hold my nose if I vote for him in November.
    As someone once said, My country right or wrong. When it is right, follow it and when it is wrong change it.

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