Another Independence Day has come and gone ... filled with picnics and parades and capped off with the requisite bombs, a.k.a. fireworks, bursting in air. It’s all great fun and a welcome break from the daily routine (except for those unfortunately souls who spent most of the day manning cash registers at the mall and handing out burgers and fries at local fast food restaurants.) It wouldn’t be good for the wheels of commerce to fully pause, even for so exuberant a celebration as the day we shed the bonds that connected us with dear old England.
I have been thinking about the concept of patriotism–and how one decides to identify with a particular country and pledge allegiance to its government. For the vast majority of people on this planet – including most Americans – the decision is a simple one: a covenant sealed for them on the day they were born. But nationality isn’t a biological trait – there is no national “gene” that makes someone French or Russian or American. So the things we believe about our history, the stories–both true and false–that bind us to our national culture have to be taught, or learned from outside sources and personal experience.
So what is patriotism? It’s certainly more than wrapping ourselves in red, white and blue and proclaiming superiority over every other nation and political system on the globe. The French recently elected a new president in 6 weeks–there has got to be some merit in that, compared to the torturous, money-soaked, year-long marathon we run every 4 years.
The Swiss have higher mountains, the Germans have better trains and the Italians have better food. What Americans have the right to boast about–what we’ve really got going in our favor–isn’t uniform superiority, but diversity: “E pluribus unum”. . . from many, one. From the first European explorers to the colonial settlers to waves of immigrants who streamed across the oceans in the 19th and 20th centuries, our culture, our economy and our government has been energized and enriched by the passion and hope of people who chose to make America their home.
Ours is the only nation on earth created entirely by people who came from somewhere else. Yet, as we consider the success of our republic, we have a moral imperative to remember that the United States prospered at the expense of its native population and significant portions were built on the backs of slaves and poor laborers.
To me, patriotism isn’t sweeping the contradictions between our ideals and our whole history under the rug. Patriotism demands that we look at ourselves with open eyes, admit our mistakes and learn from them. Patriotism requires us to pay attention to what is being done now in our name at the national, state and community level; it means investing some of our precious time to research the facts and make up our own minds about critical issues. Patriotism means accepting that all of our fellow citizens deserve the same respect and opportunities as we do. It means acknowledging our responsibility to support our country to the best of our ability with our time, talents and, yes, with our fair share of taxes. Otherwise, all the flags and fireworks just serve as decorations, to paraphrase Mark Twain, on the last refuge of scoundrels.
Today’s sobering fact: Keeping one American service member in Afghanistan costs between $850,000 and $1.4 million a year. A typical army sergeant with four years service makes a base pay of less than $30,000 a year.