A Perspective on Patriotism
I was always impressed with a stance my grandfather took when I grew up. Grandpa insisted that our country is suffering because of a lack of pride in America. Grandpa was very patriotic. He lived through the Great Depression, served in World War II and raised a family during the tumultuous Sixties. Grandpa was adamant that something important was missing in each generation that followed his own—and he said that it was a lack of patriotism.
Grandpa is gone now. But I still replay his conversations during those moments when I long to connect with the past. I remember how easy it was to talk to that old man, even when we did not agree on our chosen topic. I can almost hear the talk we would have now that I am a grown man and America has gone into a new state of war that is unlike most of the wars we have been through before.
Grandpa would say, "I am worried about the future. I feel sorry for this generation.”
"Why is that?” I would ask.
"Well kids these days don’t have all the things we had before. You don’t see it, but the freedoms I grew up with aren’t here anymore.”
Grandpa would lean forward, poke me with his sharp fingernails and raise an eyebrow. "When I was a young man, I could walk down the street and smile at a woman without her fearing about rape. If I wanted to work, I could find a job. I didn’t have to lock my front door when I left the house. Things were just different back then.”
"But is everything really that different?” I would ask skeptically. "Read the history books and you see that each age is full of crooks and charlatans and tyrants. It goes in cycles from one generation to the next… we think our parents didn’t do something right and we focus on raising our kids another way; they grow up thinking we were too extreme that way, so they move back to the other side.”
Grandpa would shrug and say, "Maybe you’re right. But still… I can tell you that things are so different—and for the worse! We say we are so much more advanced… but I say that we’re more slaves now than ever before.” He might start talking about the evils of the technology age… and my mind might skip some sentences as I formulate my comebacks.
Eventually Grandpa would say, "Our problem is that no one is patriotic anymore. Everyone always thinks about themselves. Nobody knows what America is all about.”
"What is America all about?”
"America used to be about doing your share, doing what is right. We used to have pride in America because that was just right. Now nobody has pride. Nobody respects the flag anymore.”
I would shake my head and say, "Grandpa… look at all the streets lined with American flags ever since the World Trade Center fell. They adorn the front lawns of homes in record numbers nowadays. Every single sporting event is preceded by some kind of patriotic gesture. Kids across America start every day saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t think that patriotism is lacking… I almost feel that it is too high nowadays.”
Grandpa would be shocked, but he would wait for me to finish my words.
"I don’t like the idea of everyone swelling with national pride unless they have partaken in the tasks that create that pride. Nationalism moves a nation… but it seems to move it in irrational ways much more than logical. Remember the national fervor of Nazi Germany? The Holocaust was only possible because of patriotic nationalism. Germans were proud of being German. But why should one be proud of being born to specific parents in a specific place or to a specific culture, religion, etc?”
I think Grandpa’s eyebrows would furrow as he takes in this thought. "Yeah… I can see your point… But still… that was Germany. They were doing something wrong. America is different.”
"Really? What about the American treatment of slaves and African Americans? What about the Native Americans? American patriotism was nothing more than imperialism when it came to claiming lands for our society.”
Grandpa would look even glummer.
"Grandpa, it’s not that I am ashamed to be an American. Far from it. I simply do not take pride in the world around me. Instead, I simply feel lucky. I am lucky to be alive… lucky to live in America during a time that is generally prosperous and free. I feel lucky to live in a country that has had great leaders like Thomas Jefferson and his generation; I feel lucky that tyrants like Hitler do not run our country; I feel lucky that men like yourself have fought to preserve the culture that is America.”
"But I don’t understand,” he might say. "How can you say all this and not be patriotic?”
"I guess a part of me is patriotic in a certain sense, and I would fight desperately to defend the ideals of this country. But my patriotism is different than what is preached. I have no pride in America—because I have no right to be proud. I take no special interest in the fanfare of public patriotism. What have I done to be proud of it? Nothing. Pride, the real kind that soaks into your veins, can only be earned by blood, tears and sweat. I have offered none of these things. Therefore I cannot be proud. Instead, I am respectful and gracious.”
Now grandpa would smile. I am not so sure what he would say, but I am sure he would smile. I sure miss him. I certainly miss having these mild philosophical conversations with him.
The world we live in today is certainly not the same world that my Grandparents grew up in. But despite all the propaganda and political junk that fills the airwaves, the fact of life is that all generations have their own crisis and problems. I think it is easy to gloss the past so that its wrinkles disappear. As bad as the world may seem to some… its not as bad as it seems. Today’s conflicts certainly aren’t as bad as World War II was. But then again, history is getting written every day… and the conflicts of the future may turn the ghosts of World War II paler than they already were.
I feel that the challenges we face most are more primal than we realize. The instincts in us that raise patriotic feelings have solid historic roots—patriotism helps survival of any group. But despite its obvious benefits to our ancestors… patriotism has a dark side too. The patriotism of our ancestors probably played the role of the Grim Reaper to others.
I am not saying that we get rid of patriotism—because I feel the same pull that any parent does to protect and preserve. But I do think that today’s America spends too much time covering patriotism with accolades rather than realism. While pumping up the patriotic steam of American masses, we lose sight of how scary the same process is when coming from other cultures or countries. Patriotism, by itself, is not good or bad in the same way that a gun, by itself, is not good or bad. Wisdom, or lack thereof, decides the value of these things in every place and time.