DeFrates column: Patriotism isn’t a fixed — or simple — idea
Pa·tri·ot·ism – noun
1. love for or devotion to one’s country
And thanks again, Merriam-Webster, for leaving the English language vague enough to split an entire nation in two. “Patriotism” is the fuzzy, abstract noun gouging America’s population apart like an iron spike.
Most of us will agree that patriotism is meant to strengthen our country. But the definition of the word and the actions associated with it are where we fall apart.
On one side, there is the traditional definition. Patriots defend our country, respect the flag, say the pledge and stand for the national anthem. We envision Washington crossing the Delaware, the flag at Iwo Jima, and the dun-colored camo uniforms of our modern servicemen and women.
On the other side, we hear that protesting is patriotic. Images of tea parties, MLK and Vietnam street protests line up for our country’s long relationship with outspoken resistance. Now we add kneeling NFL players to that list of images that make contemporary conservatives uncomfortable.
And as usual, blind faith in either definition is rewarded only with raised voices, nasty ad hominems and a bitter gridlock, weakening the country both sides work to defend in their own way.
It is essential to understand that the definition of words and their various connotations are constantly in flux. For example, the origin of the word “patriot” carried with it some unsavory innuendos in 18th century England and was used as an ironic and derogatory reference to someone who valued the country above all else.
“The name of patriot had become [c. 1744] a by-word of derision … the most popular declaration which a candidate could make on the [campaign] was that he had never been and never would be a patriot.” [Macaulay, “Horace Walpole,” 1833]
Obviously, the connotation has changed, as has the population and priorities of America. We live in a dynamic country made up of a more diverse population than any other in the world. Although our elected government officials are hardly representative of this diversity, social media and other national platforms are being used to give previously marginalized voices a little more volume.
And if you’re like me, you may be hearing ideas from those populations more clearly than ever before, and some of what I am hearing is at odds with beliefs I used to hold. But how we respond to new perspectives, and the respect we give them, is what defines us as Americans. Because those voices have always been there, we just might not have been listening.
So here’s what I’ve learned from the national debate of what patriotism should look like:
Static definitions of patriotism that value the symbols of a country over the people of that country are nothing more than the age-old manifestation of the fear of change. There is no strength in a room full of people all saying the same thing in the same pose to the same inanimate object.
The strength of a country comes from the way it treats its citizens. And the way that those citizens return the favor, patriotically, is by bringing to the national table their questions, their values, their faith and their unique experiences.
As a mother of three, I will teach my children that patriotism is speaking up against injustice wherever they see it, and resisting anyone who preaches blind faith and willful ignorance.
I will teach them to love their country every day by treating with kindness and respect all the people who make up that country. I will teach them that patriots are the people who stand up for what they believe in, but who are brave enough to admit when they are wrong.
Lindsay DeFrates lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly.