I bet there’s a Japanese word for it.

In ‘World Gone Mad‘ by Bastille, Dan Smith describes a sense of helplessness in a world moved by forces he can’t understand or control. There’s a moment near the start where he reaches up a register to sing “You don’t want to fuck with us / British to the very last”. This line stuck out to me because – in the context of the song – it describes a complexity of feeling that I relate to in my American-ness.

In fact, the worse things get, the more American I feel. Smith is both admonishing and identifying with with mysterious machinations of his country, a kind of sad pride. Why pride? Because sometimes it is an entirely elective thing to say “we” instead of “you”. This isn’t pride of a nationalistic variety, but the pride of kind of choosing to stand in the muck. The English language, it seems, is missing a word for this.

Sad prides runs all through popular sentiment and culture. It’s not just “sad”, but disparaging, angry, or resigned, and so on. Take the obvious example of ‘Born in the USA‘. The song is so often misinterpreted because Springsteen buries his condemnation in the unwavering tone of pride.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land*
To go and kill the yellow man

Born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A

*an actual thing that happened to my uncle, btw.

Sad pride makes the most sense when applied to a nation. But it can also apply to a smaller in-group, like a family or circle of friends. Tom Waits’s New Year’s Eve is a beautiful bare-knuckle account of family dysfunction juxtaposed with the glossy paean of Auld Lang Syne’s chorus (and indeed the only words we ever sing on New Year’s). The character is determined to leave in the morning, but there is a sense that he never will.

I scolded your driver and your brother
We are old enough to know how long you’ve been hooked
And we’ve all been through the war
And each time you score
Someone gets hauled and handcuffed and booked

Nick and Socorro broke up
And Candice wouldn’t shut up
Fin he recorded the whole thing
Ray he said damn you
And someone broke my camera
And it was New Years
And we all started to sing

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind
Should auld acquaintance be forgot for the sake of auld lang syne

Sometimes – maybe even at the root of it – sad pride refers to the self. This is not just self-deprecation, but self-deprecation waving at the top of a flag pole. It’s not Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ but Wheatus’s ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. Sad pride is alive every time a person projects their inadequacies as a triumph of human-ness.

So, perhaps self-hood is the active ingredient in sad pride. After all, the family and the nation are both direct extensions of the self. If I saw a casual friend floundering at life, I would feel sympathy, but certainly not pride. It would similarly be weird of me to feel any pride in the DR Congo’s failed state. Yet I remember a balmy July night in Massachusetts where my friends drolly shouted “No Child Left Behind!” and “The War on Terror!” as fireworks exploded across the sky. And it was this duet, not the fireworks alone, that made me proud to be American.

It seems we can only comfortably apply sad pride to areas where we have some ownership. It must contain both the experiential and the observed self (I am American, but I also observe America). When applied to one’s nation, it makes the most sense because this is precisely the area where we have the least control.