While most of us have strong feelings about patriotism, its exact meaning seems nebulous and elusive. Perhaps that is why many of us practice patriotism so differently. Some exercise what may be the pinnacle of patriotism by enlisting in our military and putting themselves in harm’s way to defend our country. For most of us though, simply standing respectfully at the playing of our national anthem is our clearest expression of patriotism. Given the growing strength of rebuke toward anyone who doesn’t conform to traditional patriotic practices, and the way a number of politicians have used claims of patriotism to advance their own ambitions, it might be of some value to take a step back and reflect on the true meaning of patriotism.
While I’m no expert on patriotism, perhaps my decades of encounters with patriotism can help reveal what it looks like. My first and most indelible encounter came about 60 years ago, when as a small boy I attended my first baseball game at Yankee Stadium. At the opening of the game, I observed 60,000 fans stand, take off their hats, face our flag, and proudly sing our national anthem. Ever since then, I make the most of every opportunity to sing our national anthem whenever it’s played. While my singing is probably way off-key, I’ve always felt it to be an honor to remember the enormous sacrifices made for me, for us. Sadly, over the decades I’ve noticed that few people practice singing our anthem, and some give less than their full attention to our flag. While that has been disappointing, I’ve tried to chalk it up to people being a bit self-conscious about singing these days and accept that some may not have been brought up as I was.
As a boy I also learned something about patriotism by learning to respect those in uniform who protect us. Growing up in one of the slums in New York City, I was taught to always be respectful of not only those in the military, but the police as well.
Given such traditional values, it may surprise some to know that when Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee at the playing of our national anthem in 2016, I didn’t find it the least bit disrespectful. He faced the flag respectfully, just as I’ve always done, and refrained from talking . As soon as I learned that Kaepernick was protesting racial injustice and trying to call attention to significant gaps in the “liberty and justice for all” we’re supposed to be pledging our allegiance to, I knew he was in the right.
From everything I know, calling out police brutality and other forms of racial injustice, was an appropriate expression of allegiance to the best of what we are called to be as a people. Sadly, many fans gave Kaepernick little to no time to explain and booed him. Far worse though was the reaction of politicians, mostly from my own Republican Party. Instead of addressing the very real problem of police brutality, they chose to distort Kaepernick’s protest and use it as a means to advance their own political ambitions. Then-president Donald Trump, always Machiavellian to the core, pounced upon the opportunity to cast himself as a patriot, by leading many astray in mischaracterizing Kaepernick’s legitimate call for addressing racial injustice and police brutality.
Sadly, some in America, like to boisterously push people with “America: love it or leave it!” This false choice however avoids our best and most patriotic option which is loving America to the point where we are willing to recognize our deficiencies and have a passion for making us better.
So, what does patriotism mean to me? It’s honoring those who sacrifice for the greater good. Patriots are people who protect others. Waving a flag is a wonderful outward expression of patriotism, but it really means little to nothing if we fail to honor the precepts upon which our country was founded, particularly “All men are created equal” and endowed with an “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. So, who are our patriots? They’re not only those who fought at Fort McHenry in 1812 and those who have been or are in our military fighting to defend us, but they are the doctors and nurses, police and firemen, teachers, and those who sanitize to keep us healthy. They are the journalists who help us to know what’s true and what’s not. They’re the farmers and grocery store workers that provide us with food and millions of unsung heroes that work, often selflessly, to sustain us and make a good way forward for us. And it is to all of them, I say with deep and abiding gratitude, Thank You.
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