As I write this, my neighbors land is dotted with flags of every size. Red, white and blue sparklers and banners are waving in the faint breeze. The stars and stripes even grace tents they’ve erected for shade. They are about to hold a large party. There will be laughing, loud music, drinking, and fireworks.
On my property there are no flags. There will be no loud celebrations. The Fourth of July is a day like any other, save that it’s advent may have us looking up more history and revisiting parts of The Constitution that seem pertinent to the current time.
At a glance, our neighbors appear far more ‘patriotic’. But is that the right measure of a patriot?
The word ‘patriot’ has a very interesting history, with the meaning being very narrow at times, and almost contradictory to our understanding at others. The original ‘patriote’ simply meant ‘fellow countryman’ – for which we use ‘compatriot’ today. Under that meaning, all of us living in the United States would be ‘patriotes’. The rest of the history has both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ meanings for ‘patriot’ – at least by our modern standard. The dictionary claims that the latest meaning is “one who loves his or her country.” Yet, I disagree that the word is being used in this way, any more. Instead it is used as a bludgeon with which to berate our ‘enemies’ who happen to be compatriots.
You see it all of the time on social media. Share this meme of the flag if you are a patriot! Show your support for our troops … police … monuments … etc. … if you love this country! The implication is always that if you don’t wave the flag at every opportunity, you are somehow not a patriot.
I know so many people who put a lot of energy into the exhibition of patriotism, yet do little of the effort of patriotism. I have conversed with many of these ‘bumper sticker patriots’ who know little of the history of this country. They understand little of the workings of the government – the separate but equal branches and their roles. They ‘support The Constitution’ but know little of its actual contents. I have no doubt that they ‘love our country’ – but is that actually enough to be called a ‘patriot’?
Setting country aside, for a moment, when we talk of ‘love’ it is typically ‘for better or for worse’, as typical wedding vows often state. Love is not denial of imperfections, but the ability to acknowledge that imperfections exist. Love is not as easy as a catch phrase – it is hard work to keep connections in tact during periods of difficulty.
The history of this country has certainly been ‘better’ for some and ‘worse’ for others. Yet, along the way even those for whom this country has done it’s worst have expressed love and belief in it. The cause for that is the ideal upon which this country was founded – however flawed a founding that counted out nearly all of its residents as citizens with rights. I do not know the full number, but if you add up all of the slaves, Native Americans, and women who resided here at the time, I’m going to bet that it was better than 75% of the residents whose rights were non-existent.
Yet, they and all of the immigrants who joined us later, who underwent horrific treatment at many periods, persisted. And, today we are a better, more diverse country than ever. Have we overcome all of our past ‘evils’? Absolutely not! This year we mark the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote – yet much of our country still cannot envision a woman as president. We have not even had a woman as vice president! I speak only of my disappointment and frustration at the progress of my ‘group’, knowing that many others have their list of grievances at their groups’ treatment and slow progress to full remedy.
Yet, most of us who still have frustration and grievance do not hate or even dislike this country. We love it as much, if not even more, than the flag waving crowd. Not for exactly what it is today, but for the hope of what it can yet become. However flawed our founding fathers, many believed in the country as an experiment that would evolve as the citizenry evolved. Those who have learned our history, and read our founding documents, generally hold the view that this was never meant to be a static state.
Yet, that is exactly what the flag wavers want. Many of them want to return to a time that never was. A time that lives in fantasy and flawed memory. A time that was good for that small minority that is the straight white male. “Make America Great Again!” America has always been great as a concept, but rarely has America been great for all of its citizens. We have ebbed and flowed in our success in that direction – we are in another of our reckoning points right now. We will likely come out better, though still not perfect, on the other side.
I have experienced the view of this country from the outside, even if for only a time. I have seen the ‘ugly American’ tourist in action. For a time I lived in Hungary while it was still under Soviet rule. People I met were anxious to ask questions about what they saw of America (some through a Soviet filter, but many who had covert access to outside news from the rest of Europe). It was sobering to a twenty-something to get such a perspective. I came away seeing far more of my country’s flaws, and the negative effects we’d had on others. World War II would never be the same fable to me.
Yet, I also came back with more appreciation for the freedom and quality of life our country offered. My mother and I had just made our way out of poverty by the time I went to Hungary (my trip, paid for by friends, was part of a farmers exchange program that recruited at our university), yet we had far more than many people I met within Soviet controlled Hungary. As I said, we still have a long way to go to achieve the equality imagined in our founding documents – yet I would suggest that those who feel oppressed by this country today should visit a far more oppressed place for some perspective. We should always strive for more – but also recognize just what we do have.
I have no doubt that our neighbors love this country. But I would argue that what they love is a myth. Next to all of the flags and banners is this yard sign:
I could say something political, about this administration’s overt efforts to destroy faith in our institutions, but I’m less concerned about the outright politics of this sign. It is the sentiment “Keep America Great!” that belies their patriotism. It is a denial of the challenges our country is currently facing, and the inequities that it must rectify. It is an avowal of support for a view of America where the smallest majority of straight white males enjoy all that is great in this country, while the rest of us are expected to keep our place.
I am an imperfect patriot. I love what is good about this country, while acknowledging what needs fixing. I can admire what our founding fathers accomplished, against all odds, while acknowledging that they were flawed men. I can support the constitution while also stating that it has to evolve as we evolve to understand each other’s needs. I love this country “for better or worse” and do what I can to make it “better” for more people. I love a flawed country, not a fantasy.
I recently heard a report that patriotism is becoming unpopular in this country. That saddens me, as I think we should love our country – warts and all. But if it means that people are rejecting the ‘bumper sticker patriotism’ then I’m for that. Perhaps it is time for ‘patriot’ to get another variation on its meaning.