I’ve always had a strained relationship with Patriotism. Just the very concept has been one I’ve struggled to grasp. I recall from a very young age not understanding the Pledge of Allegiance and balking at the idea that teachers documented if I said it aloud with the rest of the class. I see people holding the American flag as an icon almost beyond reproach. There are those who observe the age-old protection of never letting it touch the ground, burning it as a form of retirement, etc. There are many who would go to blows if their beloved nation should be even remotely besmirched. I’m just not one of them.
Growing up, I wasn’t unpatriotic. I had distant members of the family that served in the armed forces (Army and police) but never an immediate family member. Everybody in my immediate family worked in the medical/health industry in one fashion or another. I suppose if I was raised anything, it was as a Globalist. So Patriotism was always a curiosity for me.
I’ve never really understood a sense of pride in one’s location. Standing upon this plot of ground as some form of identity is strange to me. I’ve traveled and in traveling, I’ve seen shocking homogeny in the human experience. The idea that people are all that different from America to France to Borneo to Chad is quite strange. Deepest Appalachia is largely identical to the deep Amazon to deep Indonesia. Hong Kong, Atlanta, and Paris are more alike than different. So the notion that the nation from which one comes is so formative strikes me as a little odd. There are distinctive differences, no doubt, but they are more variations on a theme than anything truly unique. So saying ‘I’m from here and that makes me—’ is just kind of odd to me. It likewise has always made me unclear why, in times of strife or duress, people don’t leave. Excepting the financial and social hardship of doing so, I see people refusing to leave a depressed town because of a tanking local economy and residents will say ‘it’s our home’. It is? What does that mean? Again, I get the financial hardship at play but what about this hill of dirt is so important that you will lose some aspect of your identity if you leave? How will the hill over there be in any way appreciably different? How can who you are be so heavily defined by one’s location?
I’ve also been a student of history. I’ve seen Patriotism at play throughout the ages and I’ve seen the good it does, or lack there of. Patriotism is always seemed the benign form of Nationalism, which is like Patriotism but with an exclusivity clause. Patriotism is thinking your country is the best. Nationalism is thinking your country is better. Patriotism is wanting your country to excel. Nationalism is wanting other countries to know their place. Nationalism scares me. I’ve seen what happens when Nationalism takes over Patriotism.
It’s for this reason that, in recent times, Patriotism has made me increasingly uncomfortable. It’s like that friend who is a rowdy drunk. A few beers and he’s the life of the party. A few too many beers and he starts edging towards being a danger to everyone. Patriotism is an admirable trait, one that I respect and admire and even envy. Nationalism is a cancer.
So I guess I’m not a Patriot. I own an American flag but to me, it’s little more than a symbol of a place I really like. I know the words to the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star-spangled Banner. And I definitely think of myself as American. But the die-hard commitment to one’s country is not a commitment I can align with. And to view one’s country as supreme above all others? Let’s just call that problematic.
Now, this isn’t to say I don’t like America. And this isn’t to say that I don’t respect those who are more staunch Patriots. I have a lot of issue with the way the military is used in this day and age, but I admire anyone who would sign up to serve. Whatever realities of military use under our current and previous governments, when any person puts on that uniform, I know there is a moment when they feel the idealistic optimism of service. There is a moment, no matter how fleeting, when they feel like they are the force for good. Maybe that moment lasts only briefly and that idealism is lost to those who would take advantage of the armed forces, but I know many people WANT to believe in the idealism. There will always be a gap between what is and what could be, what should be. That isn’t reason to give up hope to achieve what we all wish.
I like America. I’m struggling with our relationship right now, but I still like this place. I am happy I’ve lived here and I hope to continue living here. I want to continue being an American. I don’t want it to go anywhere. So as we observe the July Fourth Holiday, an observance of the country’s birth, I choose to recognize what this country is. Not some patriotic dream, and certainly not some nationalistic power fantasy, but a deeply flawed and struggling nation. But I also choose to recognize it’s potential, to recognize the idealism of the American Dream (to be the steward of one’s own destiny) and the American Way (that an immigrant can come to this country and do great things).
Whatever steps brought us to this moment in time, we are here today. Like any day and every day, we have the chance to make the world a better place, in big ways and small ways. Maybe that’s Patriotism?
Happy Fourth of July.