What does it mean to be patriotic?
This is an important question that our country is grappling with uncomfortable ways. One of the most remarkable characteristics of politics in the age of Trump is the shift from policy disagreements to cultural ones.
Trump’s most recent diatribe, this one in Huntsville, Alabama, is yet another example of this. Trump is struggling right now with poor polling and a next 6-months of political challenges that offer very few wins. What does he do to keep his appeal and distract us? He starts a culture war.
National pride is a defining characteristic of both culture and personal politics. If you knew nothing else about a person other than that they drove a pickup truck with a large American flag flying on the back, what would you guess about that person’s political leanings?
Patriotism is a proxy that drives a lot of other beliefs and behaviors, it’s why it’s so important. It’s why it is such a feature of the current divide in our country. I want to argue that what Trump and his supporters call patriotism is a poor replacement for the real thing and that redefining our sense of what means to be patriotic is vital.
I’m going to go 4th-grade-book-report and lay out the basic definition of patriotism as “love for one’s country”. I do so because I want to focus on “love” in that sentence. It is one those words that has so many different definitions and interpretations as to almost lose meaning.
You can have the lighthearted kind of love that you have for your favorite foods. You can have heartfelt romantic love. However, the best analogy to develop our definition of patriotism is the loving relationship and mother and child have for each other.
Patriotism is the mother’s love for her child. She wants to protect it, but she’s also eager to identify flaws so that she can improve them. She’s proud of the strengths but acknowledges the weaknesses. Ready and willing to defend her child, but knows that it is not always appropriate.
That is the kind of ownership, responsibility, and care we need to have for our country.
Nationalism is the inverse. What defines the relationship between a child to its mother? The love is unconditional and the loyalty unquestioning. She provides me with so much, that even though she’s not perfect, I will become enraged if you disrespect her.
This is the kind of toxic relationship some have with the country. They demand absolute loyalty from everyone who wishes to partake in its society. (“If you don’t respect the flag then you can get out!”)
Some people have more love for symbols of patriotism than they do for the actual country they represent. The flag is the most obvious of these. There are other symbols that we, unfortunately, associate as being “American” and thus patriotic if you like them, and unpatriotic if you don’t. Guns, apple pie, football, military, etc.
The current Colin Kaepernick situation is a perfect embodiment of this difference. Why are people so mad at him? He uses the platform he has to passively protest about a cause that he cares deeply about. He loves his community and his country, so he wants to see if protected and improved. Mother to a child.
People are angry that he could “disrespect the flag.” Yet, he hasn’t harmed anyone, done anything illegal or immoral, merely protested a symbol of the state. Patriotism is not blind love for country, unconditional support, unquestioning belief. That is nationalism, jingoism. Child to its mother.
There is harm delivered and justice denied to American citizens every day, yet athletes exercising their first amendment rights is what offends them?
Of course, none of this is actually about the flag or the anthem. Kaepernick and others are not protesting a piece of cloth, they are protesting racial injustice, especially how it is carried out in law enforcement and our legal system.
“Love the country, not the government”
I get the idea, and it’s a sentiment that I can get behind, but we misunderstand the difference between them. It is appropriate to protest the flag as a form of protesting the government, you cannot separate the two.
A country is not some ethereal entity to conceptualize about. You only need a few things to be a country. A piece of land, a sovereign government, and recognition from other countries. America was established on a document that laid out the rights the government would ensure, and rules for itself. If someone violates your rights, it’s not a bald eagle that swoops to save you, the rule of law established by our government enforces that they do or face punishment.
The flag and the anthem are supposed to represent the ideals America was founded under. If the government isn’t living up to those promises, then it is right to protest them – to bring attention to those shortcomings.
We’ve also somehow come to the conclusion that the flag=the troops, and that by declining to salute one, you’re belittling the other. This is not only untrue as no protestor has mentioned the military, but ignores the fact that we haven’t fought a war to “defend our freedoms” in nearly 80 years and 40% of the military are minorities who have a stake in these protests.
I’m sure forced obedience to symbols of the state was not what the Founding Fathers had in mind back in 1776.
Patriotism is: Genuine love for your country. The kind of love that encourages care, development, constructive criticism of its institutions, including the military and police.
Patriotism is not: Blind and unconditional support for the nation. Nor is it defending mere symbols of the country over its actual citizens.
It’s not espousing maxims about what it means to be a “true American” (there’s no such thing) or defending the status quo because it fits your definition of America.
It’s about working to improve our society for all Americans and protecting our democracy from those who seek to silence it.
In this, kneeling NFLers are American patriots – Trump and his loyalty-demanding sycophants are not.