Back in 1976, it was our country’s Bicentennial, and I was in the 4th grade. At East Pike Elementary, Ms. Degatano’s class was picked to reenact life in 1776. For five months until school let out for summer, we wore bonnets and three-cornered hats, churned butter, sewed our own flags, ran a general store, and did our classwork by candlelight. Not only was it an excellent way to learn our nation’s history, it was really cool.
When Independence Day rolled around, copious hot dogs were grilled, watermelon sliced, and cobs of corn boiled as friends and family gathered in honor of this exceptional national birthday. With bellies full of barbecue, we bent our faces upward to see what our forefathers saw in The Revolutionary-War-torn sky two centuries ago. We “oooed” and “aaahhhed” as the fireworks imitated “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and we took it for granted that Americans are special.
But nowadays, thanks to the complex quagmire of extremes in modern society, the mere act of being patriotic has become a political statement subject to judgment, debate, and controversy.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “patriotism” simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country,” but the complicated gridlock of ideas regarding politics, economics, religion, domestic issues, gender roles and sexual norms has politicized national pride.
A person can no longer identify as “patriotic” without suggesting that he or she might also be pro-life, pro-gun, pro-war, anti-gay, anti-amnesty, or racist. How did patriotism become bogged down with so much extra baggage?
Terrorist attacks have become a regular part of our 24/7 news stream, and rather than banding together the way Americans did after 9/11, public discourse degrades into bitter debates over gun control, administrative failures, race and religion. The “new normal” for political campaigns includes tabloid-like press coverage, bitter personal attacks, Twitter wars, and violent protests. Extreme divisiveness has the public defensively poised, ready to pit black against white, gay against straight, atheist against believer, male against female, choice against life, and animal against human in an all-out fight for who has rights.
In recent years, scholars, pundits and pop stars have pontificated over whether patriotism is the quiet and unpretentious love of the best ideals of one’s homeland, or ferocious blind faith jingoistic nationalism that incites excessive military action. (See http://www.thenation.com/article/what-patriotism/ and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-do-you-define-patriotism/.)
Every year around this time, new polls on patriotism ask questions such as: “Would you describe yourself as patriotic?” “Do you feel this country has gotten off track?” “Are you proud to be an American?” “Do you think the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world?” Each statistic is broken down by gender, race, age and political party, so that inferences can further separate individual groups. (See https://www.aei.org/publication/aei-public-opinion-study-polls-on-patriotism/.)
Despite the attempts to deconstruct patriotism, the intangible notion of “The American Spirit” remains intact, having transcended current governments and political parties. Ever since our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence back in 1776, America has been a truly unique melting pot of democratic values, personal liberties, military superiority, industrial and scientific advancements, and humanitarian responsibility.
As a military family, we have daily reminders of how fortunate we are to be Americans. Every morning, we pause reverently to face one of the many flags flown on base, hands over hearts, to hear “The Star Spangled Banner.” “United States” is in the job title of every military serviceperson. War monuments and memorials on base remind us of those who fought and paid the ultimate price for our democracy and freedom. For us, patriotism is a lifestyle.
But average Americans caught up in the complications of the 21st Century may need to be reminded that patriotism is not a political statement – it is an expression of our undying American Spirit.
This July 4th, keep it simple. Wear red, white and blue. Fire up the barbecue. Fly the flag. Raise your face to the night sky. Wipe away the tangled web of rhetoric and divisiveness, and remember what it means to be free.