I Always Thought Patriotism Was For ‘Them’
But it’s not. It’s for us.
Here is an oddly specific memory about my first encounter with the idea of patriotism. My grandparents have come to visit from California in a rented RV; I’m very small, maybe four or five, and have only met them at a time before I could remember. They come, like good grandparents, bearing gifts.
Among them is a pencil that they give to my brother. It has the print of Old Glory and a picture of a bald eagle on it. My brother, who watches a lot of GI Joe and voraciously reads about war history, is happy to receive it, saying something along the lines of (to my child’s memory, anyway) “I’m proud to live in the U.S. of A.”
I don’t get it at the time. And in fact, I don’t get it for years. I join my first political campaign at 13, fighting a ballot initiative that would have prohibited teachers from even mentioning homosexuality in schools. In the 8th grade, I sit down during the Pledge of Allegiance because I don’t agree with No Child Left Behind or the requirement to say “under God.” I walk out of my high school to protest the Iraq war. I wear a button with a coat-hanger on it that says “Never Again.” I wear black the day after George W. Bush is re-elected.
Everything I found myself fighting for as a young liberal was deemed unpatriotic. It was patriotic, the opposition said, to “defend the sanctity of marriage.” It was patriotic, they said, to be “pro-life.” It was patriotic to grant religious liberty to Christians and it was patriotic to try to restrict the rights and movements of Muslims. And it was definitely patriotic, they said, to errantly invade nations, kill innocent civilians, and send a generation of young people into combat zones from which they would never recover.
Patriotism was saluting the flag but patriotism was also gladly handing over unwieldy governmental control in the name of 60 words with a catchy title. Patriotism was being pro-military, regardless of the cost, and pro-police, regardless of the glaring problems. Patriotism was fireworks on the Fourth of July and Toby Keith saying that putting a boot in someone’s ass is the “American way.”
It wasn’t until I cast my first ballot for President and danced in the streets of Bellingham after Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech that I ever truly felt a sense of patriotism. Patriotism, in that moment (and since then) was doing the right thing by the biggest number of people.
Patriotism was saying “yes we can” and meaning it.
In its purest meaning, patriotism is simply “an vigorous support for one’s country.” But that’s not how it’s been defined colloquially and, I think, that has put American politics at a disadvantage.
I came late to my sense of patriotism because for a very long time I was made to believe that the right to take pride in my country was owned solely by the Republican party and that feeling that pride was inextricable from conservative and religious ideologies. Whereas I always believed that the nation—and my community—could be more inclusive and more equitable, I didn’t believe that was actually what patriotism meant because so many people who used the word did not want that.
I was shown and told in no small number of ways that supporting and loving the United States meant slowing its progress, restricting access to its wealth, tightening its borders, and retaining a white-knuckle grip on its systems of oppression that were baked in from the beginning and have never been dismantled.
And you’d better be damn sure that that’s by design.
It is a clever linguistic and mental trick to tell a person that the constructions which keep them at bay are in their best interest; that enormous defense spending is patriotic while higher taxes on the wealthy to fund schools which will empower children with the power to think critically is not. And that if you’re not with us, you’re against us.
I am with this flawed, uneven, messy country because I believe that there is a foundation we can build on and because I believe that people are good and can do good.
And I have arrived at this belief honestly; I’m a class-ascender and the first in my family to graduate from university. Because of a combination of privilege, luck, love, and work, this nation afforded me—a public school free lunch kid who lived on a dirt road, who comes from generations of poor people, thieves, migrant workers, immigrants, Native Americans, Mexican revolutionaries, and Californios—the American Dream is within reach.
I’m a #ProudPatriot because we got ourselves into this mess and we have to be our own heroes now.
I’m a #ProudPatriot because I think giving up is a cynical thing to do and fuck cynicism.
And I’m a #ProudPatriot because I refuse to let patriotism be owned by voices and parties who stunt our country with self-centered, self-serving policies that exclude people.
Patriotism is, I think, a kind of optimism; it’s loving and supporting your country even when you know it’s flawed because you expect more. And it’s being willing to do what it takes to fix the problem not by going backward, but by going forward. Opening the doors to power to those who have traditionally be kept out has never made an institution weaker; like mending with gold, it makes it stronger.
Patriotism is not, as I thought for a very long time, a pencil or a flag or a country song about racism; it is the determination we feel to keep going and keep growing.