I'm a TA at Boston University and I sometimes teach students about intro-level film theory stuff. Whenever I am tasked with teaching about "genre," I usually start the class with a crash-course in semiotics (the study of signs/signifiers and how meaning is constructed). Semiotics is relevant to genre because genre conventions often rely on shared symbols/meanings as a sort of audiovisual shorthand for narrative tropes and thematic arcs. Anyway, to explain semiotics, I usually start by showing the students a picture of the American flag, and I ask: "what does this image mean?" The purpose of the exercise and ensuing discussion is to explore the idea that meaning is complicated, and that even something as simple as a rectangle with red, white, and blue geometric shapes can mean very different things for different people, depending on the context. The flag has ideological meaning. It has rhetorical meaning. It has political meaning. It has historical meaning. And because its "meaning" is so complex, sometimes the symbol itself feels different depending on circumstance. Lately, for instance, I've found myself feeling more frustrated than patriotic when I look at the stars and stripes. But I wouldn't say I'm not a patriot. I am.
My sense of patriotism is complicated, though. Today, on the 4th of July, I’m reminded that I really, really do love America. But that feeling of love is marred by a lot of other things. I’m hesitant to simply say that I’m “patriotic,” without any caveats, because that word seems to carry a ton of baggage with it.
I don't believe in nationalism; I don't believe that America is inherently any better or more deserving of love and admiration than other countries. I don’t believe that America is without sin. I don’t believe that American structures and systems are properly working. I don’t believe America treats its own citizens as well as it ought to. I don’t believe America treats citizens of other nations as well as it ought to. I don’t believe American culture, identity, and history is sacred.
Which is to say that I don’t believe America is particularly smiled upon by God or the Universe. Indeed, I don’t believe it can be, until it fully acknowledges, confronts, and dismantles its undercurrents of white supremacy; its aggressive heteronormativity (which is to say, its homophobia); its calloused, laissez-faire response to its epidemic of rampant gun violence; its growing “post-truth” mentality of anti-journalism and anti-intellectualism; its mass incarceration; its culture of exploitation and appropriation; its capitalistic, materialistic excess; its false god of Manifest Destiny; its thinly-veiled xenophobia (particularly re: folks from Muslim and Central American countries); and its literally whitewashed history of genocide(s). Some of these phenomena are new; most are old. They are all fundamentally, deeply American—or at the very least, they are intertwined with the roots of American culture, and they must be dug out. The process of doing so will necessarily be grueling. But until it is done, I do believe we—collectively—are damned.
And yet, I truly am grateful for my country. I am inspired by my country. In short: I love my America. I am proud of it.
I am proud to share a nationality with so many great American activists over the years who have consistently and bravely shown their willingness to stand for what's right. Malcolm X. Emma González. Harvey Milk. Martin Luther King, Jr. George Takei. David Hogg. Kate Kelly. Colin Kaepernick. These people teach me what it means to act, to resist, to speak up, to protect what's important.
I am proud to associate with the many American filmmakers who seem to capture something beautiful and insightful about life. Paul Thomas Anderson. Stan Brakhage. Charlie Chaplin. Howard Hawks. Spike Jonze. Stanley Kubrick. King Vidor. Orson Welles. Robert Zemeckis. Steven Soderbergh. Sidney Lumet. Maya Deren. John Ford. Martin Scorsese. John Cassavetes. Steven Spielberg. Joel and Ethan Coen. Terrence Malick. Otto Preminger. These people bring me into a new state of consciousness by inviting me into their worlds and encouraging me to challenge the imaginative limits I'd set for myself and my worldview. They tell me stories with flickers of light and sound and they remind me why storytelling is important.
I am awed and humbled by the many American writers, poets, and philosophers who have written provocative and powerful things about the human experience. Ernest Hemingway. Hilary Putnam. Shel Silverstein. Rachel Hunt Steenblik. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Henry David Thoreau. Edgar Allen Poe. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mark Twain. Adam S. Miller. William James. John Steinbeck. Emily Dickinson. Robert Frost. Cormac McCarthy. Joseph Smith, Jr. Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel. Noam Chomsky. Isaac Asimov. Stephen King. Joseph Heller. Abraham Lincoln. James Baldwin. Alvin Plantinga. David L. Paulsen. These are bona-fide American prophets; these are modern-day seers; these are revelators of truth.
And the music that comes out of America is extraordinary. Ray Charles. Louis Armstrong. Michael Jackson. Kurt Cobain. Johnny Cash. Beyoncé. John Coltrane. Officer Jenny. Lin-Manuel Miranda. John Williams. Paul Simon. Childish Gambino. Philip Glass. Kendrick Lamar. Tyler Glenn. Zack de la Rocha. Sufjan Stevens. The Roots. These folks pour their souls into transcendent chords, melodies, and rhythms; they reach into my heart and awaken something I'd forgotten was there. They comfort and confront; they organize and scatter; they soothe and scold; they cry out, both in rapture and in anguish.
And artists. So many great artists are American! Jean-Michel Basquiat. Edward Hopper. Mark Rothko. Georgia O'Keeffe. Ansel Adams. Jackson Pollock. Shepard Fairey. Kehinde Wiley. John Singer Sargent. George Bellows.
Because of all of these people and more, I am happy to be an American. There are a lot of things about America to be upset about—and rightly so—but they cannot take away the extraordinary spirit of those who live here, and who have found meaningful and powerful ways to express to the rest of us why everything matters. To fight back against oppressive systems. To open our minds to new ways of thinking. To quietly whisper Truth to our hearts while also shouting it unabashedly from the rooftops.
Sometimes, I am afraid for my country. Increasingly often, I am angry with my country. And almost every day, I am ashamed of my country. But this fear does not mean that we are powerless to change things. And this angry shame does not mean there is nothing to be proud of, that there is nothing to hold on to.
America is great (not “again,” just great). In ways, America is imperialistic, oppressive, racist, slow-moving, and stubborn—but it is also great. America is resilient, flexible, ever-evolving, progressive, aspirational, welcoming, and diverse.
This July 4th, I express gratitude for all of the ways in which America is great. But I also recognize that it can and must be better. That we have work to do. And this “work” is an integral part of the burden of being, well, independent. So, happy Independence Day, everyone. Let's get to work.
 For a helpful (though, admittedly, pretty snarky) rundown of the difference between “patriotism” and “nationalism,” see this political cartoon from Jen Sorensen at Splinter.
 Our treatment of other countries’ civilians during times of war has been appalling throughout history, of course—a cursory glance through history shows this—but even if you want recent exemplary data points, you don’t have to look very far. Consider Obama’s gratuitous, deadly drone strikes, for instance.
 You can find more on the link between heteronormativity and homophobia in “Charting a Path through the ‘Desert of Nothing,” in Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader, by Karen Lovaas and Mercilee M. Jenkins.
 Mass incarceration is a term used by historians and sociologists to describe the substantial increase in the number of incarcerated people in American prisons over the past four decades. A good place to start if you want to learn more is Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (it’s currently on Netflix).
 Kate Kelly did some really important work a few years ago w.r.t. Mormon feminisim (more on that here). I actually modeled for her once, in a photoshoot for one of the campaigns put together by her organization.
 I once watched six Paul Thomas Anderson films in a row (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice). I meant to write about it, but never did. It was part of a movie marathon thing I was doing last summer.
 I once watched seven Kubrick films in a row (The Killing, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut), for the aforementioned series of marathon events. It was exhausting and wonderful.
 For your own good: please find a copy of Meshes of the Afternoon with the 1959 music by Teiji Ito, and watch it as soon as you can.
 Malick is the quintessential philosopher-filmmaker. There’s a good article here about Malick’s particular Heideggerian existentialist interests. (One of these days, I’ll write some thoughts of my own about this as well.)
 I’ll never forget the feelings I had reading The Road (2006) for my first time.
 The Dark Tower book series (1982-2004) is, collectively, one of my favorite pieces of genre fiction ever. It’s up there with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings for me.
 Fun fact: Ray Charles is great. You knew this already, right? If not, go listen to “Georgia on My Mind” again.
 Lamar’s recent album, “DAMN.,” won a Pulitzer prize in April 2018. And rightly so: the rap album is not only extraordinary musically; it’s also one of the most important works of literature that has been written in a very long time.
 The most notable albums by Stevens are probably “Seven Swans” (2004); “Carrie & Lowell” (2015) and “Illinois” (2005). But for some more experimental prog-folk stuff, check out “The Age of Adz” (2010).
 You might know The Roots from Jimmy Fallon’s show. But they also produce albums all the time. Their most notable work is probably “Things Fall Apart” (1999) or “The Tipping Point” (2004). But I’m partial to “Undun,” their 2011 neo-soul concept album with a reverse-chronological story. It’s great stuff.
 Remember in Mad Men when a bunch of characters snuck into Bert Cooper’s office to stare at his Rothko? One of the best scenes. (“Did someone tell you that?” “How could someone tell you that?”)
 Stag at Sharkey's is my favorite of his paintings. The incredible diagonals in the posture of its subjects, especially when contrasted with the horizontal stability of the ropes, evoke such a feeling of movement and violence. It’s fluid.