Is there still a place for patriotism?

    For a long time, I was not that big on patriotism. Shortly after I became interested in politics (which was pretty early on in a family that had me reciting the presidents in chronological order as a requirement for leaving the dinner table), it seemed to me that the intelligent people in the world of politics were always criticizing everything U.S. politicians said or did.

    Even later, when I realized that the only thing that a lot of political journalists do is criticize, the gusty patriotism that I encountered was always entangled in catch phrases like “”American values”” and the “”American dream,”” concepts and ideals that I had trouble relating with anything concrete.

    I was growing up in a world where politicians had a bad name. They lied, cheated, did anything to get ahead, and could be bought and sold at the bidding of anyone with a deep enough wallet. Being proud of America seemed an endorsement of the people running it, and there was not a lot of reason to be backing people who had scandals following them right and left.

    And of course, there is a huge amount of historical baggage. There is slavery, internment camps, sexism, discrimination and a constitution that has slaves listed as three-fifths of a person. More recently, there is the invasion of dozens of South American countries for reasons that are at best questionable. Being proud of those actions would seemingly make someone a bigot, a racist or simply a jerk. I like to think of myself as someone who falls into those categories as little as possible.

    So there I was, feeling jaded and cynical about politics and subsequently bitter toward those who could not see that patriotism was an ignorant waste of time. Most of my peers felt the same way. That kind of attitude was tested in my first college political science course in which we were asked to rank ourselves on a scale of one to five in a number of different areas. The professor asked how passionate we were regarding different issues and to rank our interest in politics, as well as how left or right we were — with conservative as one and liberal as five. I was, predictably, a five. Then he asked us to rank our patriotism, one being low and five being high. I hesitated, then put down a two.

    But it did not feel right. After all, I had been out of the country. I had seen the poverty of third-world countries, as well as the sheer political corruption of certain European nations, yet surely patriotism was not derived from disliking aspects of other countries. Besides, there is poverty and corruption within U.S. borders that may be better hidden but cannot be ignored.

    Like no small number of political issues, what eventually changed my mind was a discussion with my dad. One night I asked him if he considered himself to be patriotic. Besides being a very intelligent guy, my dad worked in the state department with the Foreign Service for years, two of which were spent working in West Germany in the early 1980s. Asking him was more than asking someone I respected; it was asking the opinion of someone who had the opportunity to see American values from a variety of angles and perspectives.

    “”I consider myself very patriotic,”” he said. “”Overall, I’m very proud of the actions of America over the past 200 years.”” He went on to talk about the founding principles and how many of them have endured since the inception of the Constitution, launched into an explanation of early foreign policies, and discussed the way that Americans feel connected to each other through values as opposed to heritage. Suddenly being patriotic did not seem like such an awkward thing anymore.

    Lest I seem insensitive, I do not want to imply that the Bill of Rights somehow nullifies the horror of slavery. I am not trying to argue that the do-it-yourself attitude of America cancels out the racism and sexism of the past (and present). I am certainly not proud of all American actions. Conversely, I would hesitate to respect any kind of patriotism based on the blind assumption that American actions are always right and unquestionable. But as a result of that conversation, I have come to look at patriotism differently. I have learned to look at things I took for granted.

    There are a lot of things in American politics that anger me, from slavery to the war on terrorism. But patriotism and accepting those actions no longer seem mutually exclusive. It is a country based on ideas of equality and justice on the freedom of speech, religion, expression and the right of the people to petition their government for a redress of grievances. It is a country that allows a huge amount of immigration and, to an extent much larger than most, allows those immigrants to gain citizenship.

    Even if those founding ideals are sometimes violated or twisted, and even if this country has committed terrible acts of devastation and horror, I think I can consider myself patriotic. I think I can accept the idea that even though there are people in power that I dislike and are actions being taken that I find objectionable, I still have rights and freedoms that are admirable overall. Regardless of infractions and infringements of those founding ideals, the concept of liberty lives on. The fact is that this is a country in which it is worth struggling to find patriotism.

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