Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Makes a Patriot?


Do you wave the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and support the US in every conflict anywhere on the globe?  If so, you probably consider yourself a patriot.  I do none of those things but I'm a patriot too.  What is patriotism?  Is it reverence for symbols, an attitude or actual deeds?  Does it require understanding how other countries work to be able to base your pride on something truly different?

As a student of history, I'm familiar with both America's triumphs and with the uglier side of our history.  As one who has traveled quite a bit, I've also seen how other countries function.  Every nation can be proud of some things and ashamed of others.  I don't need to disparage other nations to express my pride in America.  What makes America great?  Each of us might have a different explanation but here's mine:

  1. The beauty of our land.  Does any other place have forests like the Northwest, desert blooms like the Southwest or fall colors like the Northeast?  I've seen desolate brown landscapes in Central Asia, treeless expanses in Europe and polluted waters in Asia.  We are incredibly fortunate.  As a patriot though, I am responsible for protecting this beautiful but fragile heritage.
  2. The diversity of our people.  In spite of all that we hear about bigotry and intolerance, I have found Americans more tolerant and accepting of diversity than people anywhere else.  We are a land of immigrants and live peacefully together, for the most part.  Look to any other nation and ethnic tensions are more virulent than here.  But we're still a work in progress. 
  3. Systems that work.  In the US our infrastructure, our communication systems, our local governments, our system of law -- it all works and it works all the time.  I can count on highways to be safe, offices to be open as publicized, the courts to follow the rules and products to be available.  This is a complex society and it's amazing to me that it all does work, but it does.  Not true everywhere.  I love being able to count on things.
  4. A Constitution that means something.  Ours is the oldest on the planet.  Many countries have constitutions that are not followed.  I cherish our system of checks and balances and the rights encoded into our Constitution.  My free speech right means not only that I can express my views safely but also that I cannot be compelled to say anything.  If I believe that a "pledge of allegiance" is compelled speech or anti-democratic, I don't have to say it.  The 4th Amendment protects my privacy and the 8th prohibits torture.  All of these are under threat all of the time but the Constitution's clout is nevertheless protective.
  5. The spirit of volunteering.  Giving your time and money to improve your community without any expectation of personal gain is a uniquely American concept.  Sure there are wonderful non-profits and generous individuals elsewhere.  But the pervasiveness of volunteers and their contributions to each and every community in the US is very special.   
  6. American casualness.  Americans are an easygoing folk.  We dress casually, we're friendly to strangers, we follow rules and we're polite.  This isn't necessarily an area of superiority but it's what makes me comfortable.  
When we talk of "American exceptionality" these are the points I think of.  I have tons of complaints too, of course.  Americans aren't curious enough about the rest of the world, the division between rich and poor is excessive, our national government is corrupted by big money and we're too willing to flex our military muscle around the world.   But as a patriot, I see every one of my complaints about my country as a challenge to be fixed.  It's my job to work on our deficiencies, not someone else's.