Are you patriotic?

Merriam-Webster’s definition of patriotism – ” Love for or devotion to one’s country.”

I’m rereading David McCullough’s book on John Adams as we prepare to visit Boston later this week. Years ago I started a project where my goal was to read a book on each U.S. President in chronological order. I got as far as our 11th President, James K. Polk. I hope to continue this project some day. My favorite of the books I read for this project was this one on Adams. I gained much insight on not only Adams’ life but on details of how the government of the United States was formed.

While looking up the definition of patriotism I saw it written that our founding fathers were examples of true patriots. When you fully understand what they sacrificed and how hard they fought, not only to separate from Britain but to establish the rules of law to govern this country, to be recognized credibly by other countries, and to keep it functioning as a democracy for years to come, it gives a fresh meaning to patriotism. There is a lot we take for granted. All of this got me to thinking about patriotism and what does it mean to me…and others…

I decided to ask a few friends and family members what patriotism means to them and if they saw themselves as patriotic. Answers were varied and interesting. I have clearly surrounded myself with smart people. Several mentioned it was a good question and some remarked it was a difficult one. Most indicated they believe patriotism involves being engaged in our society. “Fostering a community that is inclusive…”, “…participating in civic duty with the intent of having all peoples’ interests represented”, “taking an interest in your country’s welfare”, “…learning how your government operates.” “It doesn’t mean blindly following unhealthy beliefs.” One friend said, “I watch, listen and think about what our elected leaders are proposing trusting that most of them are doing what is best for our nation.” Another person felt the word patriotism was commandeered after 9/11 and used to manipulate people.

“…the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.” from “The Czar’s Soliloquy” by Mark Twain. A friend sent this in reply to my question and explained, “This quote is one that I always think of when I consider the nature of patriotism. I like it. It acknowledges the inevitable element of subjectivity and, at the same time, the unfortunate reality that some elected ‘leaders’ put their own desire to stay in office ahead of what is best for the nation. Alas, that is the nature of democracy…”

Most of the people I asked see themselves as patriotic. There were a couple naysayers. “I am not patriotic. Patriotic implies love for country. That is too small and tends to exclude those not under our country’s banner. Today we must work tirelessly to be inclusive to all humankind. Patriotism falls short and risks exclusion of those who need a global embrace.” Another answered, “No I’m not. From Dr. Johnson ‘Patriotism is the last refuse of a scoundrel.’ From Tom Paine – ‘I’m a citizen of the world.’ For me, ‘patriotism’ is too slippery a word, used by diverse people in different ways for divergent ends.”

Of course, I had to ask myself the same questions. Am I patriotic? What does patriotism mean to me? The word is not easy for me to embrace. As others alluded to, I too feel like the word has been hijacked by those who think it has to look a certain way and who are maybe more nationalistic than I am. My undergraduate degree is in political science, a path I followed after spending a semester in Central America when I was 19, where I learned that I knew very little about how our government worked. I now consider myself knowledgeable on the subject and still these aren’t easy questions. I guess I have dueling thoughts and emotions. On one hand I think there are many great things about our country and I feel lucky to live here and to have many freedoms and opportunities. I have a large amount of respect and gratitude for people who have served in the military. I appreciate the sacrifices they made for freedoms I take for granted. I could list many more things I love about my country. I struggle with the notion that our country is the only great country or that to love this country you can’t also be critical of it. In fact, there are some things that aren’t so great. For example, there are many freedoms and opportunities but there certainly isn’t a level playing field for all Americans. And there is still much racism and sexism. Also, I’m disheartened to see so many citizens blindly following leaders who are deceitful and more enamored with power than the good of our country.

We are a very young country. As has been mentioned many times recently, our political system is an experiment. Democracy isn’t guaranteed and it has felt tenuous of late.

I care about this country and the people in it. I want democracy to continue. I believe we have to keep working hard, staying increasingly engaged, and being hyper vigilant to make sure that corruption, largely fueled by greed and fear in my opinion, does not corrode our foundation. I think this makes me patriotic.

This was an interesting exercise and I appreciate my family and friends’ candor. I learned that there are many layers to patriotism and, frankly, we’ve just scratched the surface. Nevertheless, I came away with more clarity for myself regarding my thoughts and feelings on patriotism. I hope you did too.

Happy 4th of July!

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