“Are you a patriot?” someone asked me recently.
I winced nervously. “I love America,” I muttered. “But do we have to put a label on it?”
For my generation, patriot is, if not a dirty word, something you wouldn’t like someone to roll down a car window and yell at you as walk down the street. It makes you worry that there is something the matter with your outfit.
Patriotism? What patriotism? These days, the Fourth of July is just an occasion when we celebrate our love of fireworks and barbecues. Proud to be an American? We used up all our pride in parades in June.
“What’s Independence Day?” we mutter. “Wasn’t Bruce Willis in that?” And why are we wearing red, white and blue, exactly? The last time I checked, those were the national colors of France. And what are these eagles doing? The last time we saw an eagle was on “The Colbert Report,” and we were pretty sure it was ironic.
Maybe we should put the patriotism back into the Fourth of July. “But FoPatriotismurth of July sounds silly,” people object.
When did this happen?
Somehow patriotism has crept away from the mainstream and become the prerogative of people who hate taxes but are willing to wander the streets dressed as the Statue of Liberty.
The word feels strangely like a euphemism.
Some would argue that when you tack “Patriot” onto an act permitting wiretapping to obstruct terrorism, the word loses some of its charm and gains a certain edge of irony.
“Sure, I love my country,” we say. “Just don’t use the P-word.”
These days, people will more readily declare themselves “sluts” than feminists and “geeks” than patriots.
But if we have to be this ashamed to love our country, something is out of joint.
Perhaps as a generation we’re too steeped in irony to be able to pause for a moment to love our country unabashedly. Patriotism is something to be winked and nodded at. It is a euphemism for something else, and that something probably involves wiretapping. The only proud patriot we know is Stephen Colbert, who flaunts it in inverted commas, with screeching eagles and waving flags. “USA! USA!” someone says. “Hush!” we say. “That’s rude to other countries.”
Maybe we are afraid to love the holiday because we don’t know enough about it. Our civics knowledge is absolutely abominable. “The Fourth of July is when we celebrate how Paul Bunyan warned the British Invasion that Gen. Sherman was marching to the sea,” we mumble. Get back to us when we can pass an eighth-grade civics test, and maybe we will be more positively disposed toward our nation. “We are pretty confident that it is not Canada,” we say. “That is the best and worst that we can say.”
There’s something funny about patriotism.
These days, if you say you are doing something patriotic, we assume you are going to sign a petition renaming some perfectly innocuous food “Freedom Steak.”
Sure, we hang out the flag. Sure, when the Olympics roll around, we cheer. Sure, we love America. We think, on the whole, that it is a pretty nifty place, what with the rights and liberties and all. But please — “Patriot?” Next you’ll be adding me to the Tea Party mailing list.”
For years, patriotism has been creeping out of the mainstream and becoming the prerogative of the right-of-center crowd. Now “Patriot” demands the preface “Tea Party.”
And the people who actively embrace the word tend to go a bit over the top. “America is the greatest country ever in the history of all planets and even some parallel universes and God is coming down from the sky later to shake us by the hand and give us ice cream sandwiches!” capital-P Patriots shout. “We feel as though that might not be 100 percent accurate,” we mutter, adjusting our flag pins.
“Look, it’s not that we don’t feel proud of our country,” we say. “It’s just that people who say they are patriots tend to be Born-Again Patriots with a capital P who have given up their cars and ride around on the backs of eagles, Gandalf-style, and their ring tone is “God Bless America,” and their children are named Grand, Old and Flag, and we’re just not comfortable with that.”
“That’s why we need more people to come out as patriots without doing all that,” someone pipes up. But we’re not there yet.
Patriotism is not a dirty word. It isn’t just unpopular acts and blind unthinking devotion to a geographical area, as some reductionists would suggest. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “My country, right or wrong, is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying ‘My mother, drunk or sober.”
Patriotism doesn’t mean that you think we already have the best country imaginable. If you do, you’re doing it wrong. In its simplest form, it means agreeing with Churchill when he said, “Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the rest that have been tried from time to time.”
There is more to this country than an unsingable national anthem.We believed in the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness before they were mainstream. Thousands of people come to our shores each year seeking what we have, because it is rare and precious. We have a system of government based on the consent of the governed. Our dead soldiers gave their lives not for a flag or because they particularly liked eagles but to protect a way of life that is unique in the world and deserves celebration. To be a patriot is to believe in all that — in America’s past and its potential.
So yes, I’m a patriot.
Just don’t ask me to put on any hats.