False Patriotism.

A few years ago, a local chapter of the VFW asked me to judge a group of essays written by middle schoolers on the subject of patriotism. As a writer and former teacher, I was honored to do so. But, after reading them, I realized that none of the students knew the real meaning of patriotism. To all of them, patriotism revolved around the military, military hardware, the flag and the national anthem. Not the Constitution. Not the ideals established by the Founders. Not the American dream. Not exercising our right – our responsibility – to vote. Not affording equal rights to our fellow Americans – all of our fellow Americans.

Of course, the students were only parroting what they had been taught by their teachers and parents.

Like many Americans, they did not understand that, though admirable, military service is only one way to show patriotism toward their country. They did not understand that displaying a flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and placing a hand over their heart for the national anthem are only a show of patriotism – mere symbols. (It’s good to remember that the flag was not adopted until more than a year after the beginning of the Revolution, that our nation did not have a standing army until 1789 – 12 years after the United States became a country, and that the Star-Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1931 – more than 150 years after the shots were fired on Bunker Hill!)

The students did not understand that, in certain circumstances, it can be an act of patriotism to refuse military service; to stand up to government leaders by refusing to fight in an ill-conceived and illegal war. Were the soldiers who refused to follow orders and reported the war crimes at My Lai not more patriotic than those who murdered innocent men, women and children? Was not Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the lies of the Vietnam War, more patriotic than the politicians and generals who expanded the war based on false information? Were the Americans who protested and demonstrated against our pre-emptive invasion of Iraq not more patriotic than the administration who led us into it on false pretenses?

Of course they were!

If the kids’ definition of patriotism has become the accepted version, it’s not difficult to understand why our nation is perpetually at war. It’s not difficult to understand why our military budget dwarfs those of other nations. And if we honor the flag and the anthem without embracing the ideals they represent, is it any wonder so many Americans are willing to deny equal rights to those who look different; to those who love someone of the same sex; to those of a different faith, or those of no faith?

If we become outraged at football players who refuse to stand for the national anthem as a means of protest in order to draw attention to injustice while we praise the flag-waving bullies who threaten them, we have failed to grasp the Founders’ vision for our democracy. One in which it is as patriotic to call attention to our nation’s failings as it is to celebrate its successes. Indeed, it may well be more patriotic!

So what is patriotism?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” It’s fitting that the definition is so expansive. After all, there are many ways to love. And that definition is especially fitting for Americans, since the vision of our nation’s Founding Fathers was equally expansive. It’s why the Constitution they created has served us so well for so many years.

Conservative “Values.”

Whenever I hear someone talk about “values,” I silently prepare myself to endure yet another lecture about religion, hard work, freedom and patriotism. That’s because conservatives assume that they are the only ones who appreciate such things – the only ones who admire hard work, dedication to family and the benefits of living in the US.

Conservatives talk about religion, but they spout hateful ideas. They talk about freedom, but they want to discriminate against those who look different and those with whom they disagree. They talk about hard work, but they refuse to see others rewarded for it. They talk about getting the government off their backs, but they don’t want anyone to touch their Medicare or Social Security. They rail against illegal immigrants while denying equality to the First Americans. They spout quotes from the Founding Fathers, but ignore the statements from those Founders with whom they disagree.

They talk about patriotism, even as they are at war with our federal government.

For the so-called “values voters,” everything is black or white; us against them; Christians against heathens; fiscal conservatives against spendthrifts; cut-and-save against tax-and-spend. There simply is no room for middle ground. As stated by former president George W. Bush, “you’re either with us, or against us.”

I suspect this will fall on deaf ears, but here’s some news for conservatives. Caring for and helping others is a value. Negotiating peace is a value. Showing compassion for those less fortunate than yourself is a value. Leaving the environment in the same shape you found it is a value. Helping to educate others is a value. Honoring knowledge and accomplishment is a value. Tolerance for other lifestyles, ideas and religions is a value. Moderation and compromise are values. And you can be patriotic without waving the flag, shouting “USA” or supporting yet another war.

I understand, dear conservatives, that these may be distasteful and foreign concepts to you. But these are values shared by most of the developed world. In fact, your “values” of greed, anger, hate and intolerance are reviled by most of those who are educated and enlightened. You remember who used those words to describe themselves and their aspirations, don’t you? We refer to them as the Founding Fathers.

What Is Patriotism?

On this Independence Day weekend, movoto.com published a map showing the most and the least patriotic states in America. I might not have paid it any heed except for the fact that it ranked my former state of Minnesota at #49. The criteria used included the number of National Historic Landmarks per capita (WTF?), the number of veterans per capita, money spent to fund veterans, percentage of residents who voted in the last presidential election, people who use Google to buy American flags (double WTF?) and people who list America as an interest on Facebook (triple WTF?).

Obviously, the realtors who constructed the map have no clue of the true meaning of patriotism.

My ancestors fought in all of America’s wars going back to the Revolution. Many could be considered war heroes. Yet there were no showy displays of flags. They paid tribute to other veterans and to the nation, but to my knowledge, they never received nor expected special treatment for their own courage. Most were also religious, but they never made a show of their faith nor tried to force their beliefs onto others.

In short, they were true patriots.

All of this reminds me of an essay contest I was asked to judge a few years ago. It consisted of judging essays on patriotism written by a middle school class. Despite the many grammatical errors and spelling errors, the worst aspect of the competition was the fact that the children seemed to equate patriotism with flag-waving and our military might. The essays focused on war…on defending our freedom from outside interests. But there was no mention of defending our freedom from those inside our nation who would try to take away our rights. There was no mention of devotion to our nation, its principles and its Constitution. There was no mention of our responsibility to vote; to pay our fair share of taxes; to conserve our nation’s beauty; to conserve our environment. No mention of ensuring equal rights for all of our citizens.

Knowing then what I know now, I shouldn’t have been surprised. On movoto.com’s list, Arizona ranked #10 for patriotism. But, in my view, what passes for patriotism in Arizona today is far too much about show…displaying flags and military toys…than substance. By itself, a flag is just a few scraps of colored cloth. It’s what the flag stands for that is really important. Unfortunately, that fact is lost on far too many people. Some of the people who wave the flag the most and shout USA the loudest disavow our federal government. Some would deny others the right to vote, the right to control their own body and the right to marry whom they love. Some destroy signs of their political opponents. Some vandalize property of those who display election materials for the “wrong” candidates. Some shout angry epithets at members of other political parties. Some threaten and bully those who display political stickers with which they disagree. Some carry the Gadsen flag and openly carry guns in order to intimidate their fellow citizens. Some fly the battle flag of the Confederacy and make racist threats. Some cheat or refuse to pay taxes in order to deny funding for the government. All the while, like most of the South, the State of Arizona receives far more in federal funds than it pays in taxes.

Minnesota, on the other hand…the state that ranked #49 in patriotism on movoto.com’s list…leads the nation in voting. It pays a far larger share of income taxes than it receives in federal funding. Indeed, Minnesotans create a disproportionate number of jobs nationally and pay a disproportionate amount in taxes. Minnesotans played a key role for the North in the Civil War. On the other hand, the state that was ranked most patriotic by movoto.com is South Carolona…the first state to secede from the Union and to declare war on the United States.

Now tell me, which state is really more patriotic?