What exactly is a “patriot”?

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Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. The Declaration of Independence. “Freedom Day” if you’re feeling particularly dramatic. Hot dogs, beer, fireworks, the things that make America great. At least these are the cliches that we are used to hearing about, usually by the ‘Murica crowd. The idea of what exactly is “patriotism” has been of particular interest to me, especially having watch the evolution of the word and, sadly, the politicization of it.

This month I will celebrate (or recognize anyways) my 27th birthday, which means that in September of 2001 I was 13 years old and in 8th grade when – as we all know – the world would change forever on the second Tuesday of the month. I think anyone who lived through that time will, regardless of all the politicization of that event and the events that have transpired in the years since, acknowledge that the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, saw a wave of “patriotism” that to my knowledge, had not been seen at least since America’s entry into World War II. I think it was around that time that the meaning of the word “patriot” undertook its most radical change and has led us to where we are today.

I feel now is the appropriate time to issue the following disclaimer: I am about to generalize, speak in broad terms, and probably paint with a much wider brush than is accurate. For my purposes here I’m trying to capture a general feeling or perspective, and I am not casting judgment against any group or side. Proceed at your own discretion. If we’re being honest with ourselves, if you hear the word “Patriot” in popular media, odds are you are either talking about a football team in Boston, or someone who identifies as politically conservative. Rare is the time when the word “patriot” is attributed to a political liberal, or democrat. I believe that is in no small part to the caricature that conservatives have painted, wherein they are “true patriots” who “love America”, unlike their political rivals who are obviously the antithesis of everything they are, ergo democrats/liberals/progressives hate America. That is ultimately the crux of the issue that I see; patriotism as a concept has morphed from meaning that a person loves his/her country to meaning that a person never has a bad thing to say about that country.

“True patriots love America”. I have to be honest and admit that I don’t know what that means, at least not in the context that that statement is most often utilized. What does it really mean to “love” America? I suppose that is a question that will mean different things to different people because “love” as a concept is not something that can be simply defined. If we compare loving America to loving a spouse or a significant other, there are innumerable ways couples show love. I’ve been married for five years, and I love my wife more than I love anything or anyone else. One of the things that I love so much about her, perhaps one of the most important things about her, is that she is willing to call me out when I screw up. My wife is not an apologist for me, she doesn’t show her love for me by blindingly saying that I’m perfect and have no flaws and I am obviously better than every other man alive. My wife challenges me, challenges me to be a better man, helps me grow as a person, and the only way to do that is to occasionally have uncomfortable conversations about flaws. If a wife tells her husband that he can be a better person, does that mean the wife hates her husband? Possibly, but is it not also likely that the wife loves her husband so much she wants him to be the best version of himself that he can be? That to me is true love, true devotion.

The United States of America has undergone drastic social changes over the course of it’s existence, and it could be argued that some of the most dramatic have occurred in the last decade. The last ten years has seen the election and re-election of an African-American for President, the extension of civil liberties for the LGBT community along with countless other policy changes. As some of the more dramatic changes have occurred, especially Supreme Court decisions over the last week, many of the “I’m a Patriot, ‘Murica” crowd has lamented that the constitution has been ignored or thrown out. Yet to me this argument conveniently ignores that small, critically important word in the preamble to the constitution; “…in order to form a more perfect union…”. Notice that the constitution as written did not claim to form “a perfect union”, it brilliantly allowed for the natural growth and progression of the country. How are we as a nation supposed to continue to form a more perfect union if we refuse to challenge the status quo or ask questions?

The United States of America is not a perfect nation. We have had our highs and our lows, our victories and our defeats. Acknowledging a complete history, both the good and the bad, does not mean someone is not a patriot. Looking at history to measure how we have progressed and to help determine where we still have room to improve is perhaps the most American thing we as people can do. We should not be happy with the status quo, should not yearn for “how things used to be”, should not pretend that we have never made a mistake, should not pretend that we are the final arbiters of what is right and wrong. The country I love is strong enough to handle criticism, both external and internal, and I would argue that internal criticism is more important and a better indicator of our maturity as a nation. The freedom of speech was not designed so that hate mongers could spout hate speech with impunity, freedom of speech was made so that we as a people could express all ideas, especially those that are critical of the government and the country. Only by expressing and discussing the areas that we lack can we hope to progress. Progress is a good thing, and calling attention to our shortcomings is to me, patriotic. If we were a nation that could not handle criticism of the way things are and the way things have always been done, we would not be the nation that we are today. In 1776 it was determined that we could no longer be true patriots and accept the way things were. Striving for improvements and progress drove the 13 colonies to declare their independence so that one day, they could form that more perfect union.

We continue to form that more perfect union and should be proud of all we have accomplished, and be proud that we continue to improve. Happy Fourth of July, to patriots of all forms.

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