Define Patriotism Essay

[Editor's note: This article was originally published in June 2003]

Patriotism these days is like Christmas—lots of people caught up in a festive atmosphere replete with lights and spectacles. We hear reminders about “the true meaning” of Christmas—and we may even mutter a few guilt-ridden words to that effect ourselves—but each of us spends more time and thought in parties, gift-giving, and the other paraphernalia of a secularized holiday than we do deepening our devotion to the true meaning.

So it is with patriotism, especially on Memorial Day in May, Flag Day in June, and Independence Day in July. Walk down Main Street America and ask one citizen after another what patriotism means and with few exceptions, you’ll get a passel of the most self-righteous but superficial and often dead-wrong answers. America’s Founders, the men and women who gave us reason to be patriotic in the first place, would think we’ve lost our way if they could see us now.

Since the infamous attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans in near unanimity have been “feeling” patriotic. For most, that sadly suffices to make one a solid patriot. But if I’m right, it’s time for Americans to take a refresher course.

Patriotism is not love of country, if by “country” you mean scenery—amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesty, and the like. Almost every country has pretty collections of rocks, water, and stuff that people grow and eat. If that’s what patriotism is all about, then Americans have precious little for which we can claim any special or unique love. And surely, patriotism cannot mean giving one’s life for a river or a mountain range.

Patriotism is not blind trust in anything our leaders tell us or do. That just replaces some lofty concepts with mindless goose-stepping.

Patriotism is not simply showing up to vote. You need to know a lot more about what motivates a voter before you judge his patriotism. He might be casting a ballot because he just wants something at someone else’s expense. Maybe he doesn’t much care where the politician he’s hiring gets it. Remember Dr. Johnson’s wisdom: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Waving the flag can be an outward sign of patriotism, but let’s not cheapen the term by ever suggesting that it’s anything more than a sign. And while it’s always fitting to mourn those who lost their lives simply because they resided on American soil, that too does not define patriotism.

People in every country and in all times have expressed feelings of something we flippantly call “patriotism,” but that just begs the question. What is this thing, anyway? Can it be so cheap and meaningless that a few gestures and feelings make you patriotic?

Not in my book.

I subscribe to a patriotism rooted in ideas that in turn gave birth to a country, but it’s the ideas that I think of when I’m feeling patriotic. I’m a patriotic American because I revere the ideas that motivated the Founders and compelled them, in many instances, to put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line.

What ideas? Read the Declaration of Independence again. Or, if you’re like most Americans these days, read it for the very first time. It’s all there. All men are created equal. They are endowed not by government but by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Premier among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government must be limited to protecting the peace and preserving our liberties, and doing so through the consent of the governed. It’s the right of a free people to rid themselves of a government that becomes destructive of those ends, as our Founders did in a supreme act of courage and defiance more than two hundred years ago.

Call it freedom. Call it liberty. Call it whatever you want, but it’s the bedrock on which this nation was founded and from which we stray at our peril. It’s what has defined us as Americans. It’s what almost everyone who has ever lived on this planet has yearned for. It makes life worth living, which means it’s worth fighting and dying for.

An American Spin

I know that this concept of patriotism puts an American spin on the term. But I don’t know how to be patriotic for Uganda or Paraguay. I hope the Ugandans and Paraguayans have lofty ideals they celebrate when they feel patriotic, but whether or not they do is a question you’ll have to ask them. I can only tell you what patriotism means to me as an American.

I understand that America has often fallen short of the superlative ideas expressed in the Declaration. That hasn’t diminished my reverence for them, nor has it dimmed my hope that future generations of Americans will be re-inspired by them.

This brand of patriotism, in fact, gets me through the roughest and most cynical of times. My patriotism is never affected by any politician’s failures, or any shortcoming of some government policy, or any slump in the economy or stock market. I never cease to get that “rush” that comes from watching Old Glory flapping in the breeze, no matter how far today’s generations have departed from the original meaning of those stars and stripes. No outcome of any election, no matter how adverse, makes me feel any less devoted to the ideals our Founders put to pen in 1776. Indeed, as life’s experiences mount, the wisdom of what giants like Jefferson and Madison bestowed on us becomes ever more apparent to me. I get more fired up than ever to help others come to appreciate the same things.

During a recent visit to the land of my ancestors, Scotland, I came across a few very old words that gave me pause. Though they preceded our Declaration of Independence by 456 years, and come from three thousand miles away, I can hardly think of anything ever written here that more powerfully stirs in me the patriotism I’ve defined above. In 1320, in an effort to explain why they had spent the previous 30 years in bloody battle to expel the invading English, Scottish leaders ended their Declaration of Arbroath with this line: “It is not for honor or glory or wealth that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life.”

Freedom—understanding it, living it, teaching it, and supporting those who are educating others about its principles. That, my fellow Americans, is what patriotism should mean to each of us today.

Ask anyone the question, "What does patriotism mean to you?", and I promise you, you will not get one standard, clear answer. Sure, you're going to be told how we live in the greatest country on earth, and how we're the free and the brave, and you'll certainly hear about the military, and all the sacrifices that go along with service to our nation. What you probably won't hear are the many other, deeper ideologies that play into one's patriotism, or lack thereof.

The concept of patriotism is a very complex one. It's not as simple as reciting a pledge or singing an anthem. Patriotism, by simple definition, is the exaltation of national eminence, typically expressed as power over other nations, and an emotional attachment to the nation that one originates from. Patriotism is an extension of politics and its expressions and meanings are not easily agreed upon. There are so many ways in which people feel patriotism, and there are so many differing ideas of what it means to be patriotic. To most, being patriotic is all about the military and the exaltation of our troops. To some, being patriotic is simply exercising the right to vote and elect the leaders of our nation, or to fully embrace the rights of all of us to live freely and speak out against injustices in society. And then to some, apparently, patriotism is defined by a symbolic act at a sporting event.

I am deeply disturbed by the assertion that, because a sports figure refuses to participate in the singing of the National Anthem, he is then un-American and a disgrace. Adlai Stevenson summed it up perfectly when he said, "Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil, steady dedication of a lifetime." I don't know precisely when sporting events became synonymous with American patriotism, but I do find it very interesting that you don't see these grand exaltations of our flag and anthem in very many places besides sports arenas and ball fields What is particularly interesting, is that during the World Wars, fans turned to sports to escape politics and now it is so woven into the fabric of sporting events that when an athlete quietly declines participation, he is called out and shamed, his jerseys burned because of his dissent.

For myself -- and I suspect, people such as Colin Kaepernick, true patriotism means standing up for those in society who aren't given the same opportunities, those who aren't being treated with the same respect and given the same individual liberty that others are. To me, true patriotism is to align oneself with the ideas this country was built upon. What ideas, you ask? Read or re-read the Declaration of Independence. It's all laid out beautifully for you. All men are created equal. They are endowed not by government, but by birth, with certain unalienable rights. First and foremost among those rights are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government must be committed and bound to protecting the peace and preserving our individual liberties, and doing so through the informed consent of the people. It's the inalienable right of a free people to rid themselves of a government that becomes destructive of those liberties, just as our Founders did in a supreme act of courage and defiance more than two hundred years ago. And when these liberties are in danger -- dissent is inevitable. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying that "dissent is the highest form of patriotism", and I believe that to be true. And apparently, so does Colin Kaepernick.

So, what is real patriotism? I believe that real patriotism comes from the heart and is always voluntary. It's a feeling of loyalty that comes with certain conditions. Those conditions being that our nation is serving ALL of our interests - and when that isn't the case, dissent is so very patriotic.

Follow Michael Cade Hughes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/_michaelhughes1

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