It always seemed to me to boil down to unquestioning devotion to one's country -- but in a strange way. It wasn't even so much unquestioning devotion to the country itself, but rather to a certain set of political beliefs. In my high school and college years, those wonderful years in which every question is a mere formulation of a binary state, it always seemed to me as if a person's "patriotism" was measured by the political equivalent of one of those magazine questionaires:
Do you think children should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Yes or No.
Do you think that the presence of openly gay individuals in our armed services would be inappropriate? Yes or No.
Do you think that Oliver North should be pardoned for his crimes, seeing as how he was fighting the Communists? Yes or No.
[forty-seven questions later]
If you answered "Yes" forty-five or more times, you are True-Blue American Patriot. If you answered "Yes" between thirty-five and forty-four times, you're on the right track but America isn't quite ready to trust you yet. If you answered "Yes" between twenty and thirty-four times, we're OK with you working and paying taxes but we'd just as soon you didn't show up at the polls on the first Tuesday in November. And if you answered "Yes" nineteen times or fewer, please report to your local Constable for assignment to a Re-education Camp.
Yes, that's a bit extreme. But that's how it seemed to me, and even now, I don't think that the Right in this country has been at odds to suggest otherwise. It's pretty inherent in their rhetoric. Disagreement with us equals disagreement with America. Voicing disagreement in the vicinity of the President is limited to "Free Speech Zones" which are located well away from anywhere the President's feet will tread; voicing disagreement in the presence of the President is almost entirely unheard of. The President is continually referred to as "our" or "your" or "my" Commander in Chief, even though that title only pertains to his role with the armed forces, and not the country as a whole. (He is not my "Commander in Chief"; he is my President.) If a newspaper prints information that the President and his advisors don't want printed, then that newspaper is committing treason.
You don't love America, we are told. You are objectively pro-terrorist. You are aiding al-Qaeda. You are giving comfort to the Enemy.
You are NOT a Patriot.
Well, I am a Patriot. And I will have words with anyone who says otherwise.
Patriotism is not unquestioning love of one's country, nor is it adherence to a given set of dogmas laid forth by the extreme commentators on one side of our political spectrum. Patriotism is true love of one's country. I am a Patriot because I love America.
But how can this be? How can I claim to love America when I am so deeply disappointed with many of the things America has done in recent years? How can love and disappointment be applied at the same time? How can I honestly say that I am disappointed in America of late, and still claim to be a Patriot?
Because love does not rule out disappointment. In fact, it's exactly the opposite: love enables disappointment. I could not claim to love America if I were not disappointed in her as of late.
People we love disappoint us all the time. Our children bring home report cards that indicate a sudden lack of effort, or they lie to get out of the house so they can hang out with the friends we wish they didn't have. Our closest friends fail to call when we need them to the most, or to follow through on promises they've made. Our parents disappoint us. Our brothers and sisters disappoint us.
And yet we go on loving them, despite the disappointments, because we are connected with them and because they make us proud as well.
When we say "America", we often mean different things. "America" is a country, easily found on the globe, whose capital is Washington, DC. Her people are Americans, and since a country is nothing more than a collection of people who are identified as such, it follows that no country can possibly be infallible. People are imperfect. We make mistakes. We screw things up. And since countries are driven by the actions imperfect people, no country can be perfect. Countries make mistakes. Countries screw things up.
But there's another sense of "America", in that America is a notion, an ideal. Here is how Aaron Sorkin described it in an episode of The West Wing:
This country is an idea, and one that’s lit the world for two centuries and treason against that idea is not just a crime against the living! This ground holds the graves of people who died for it, who gave what Lincoln called the last full measure of devotion. Of fidelity.
It seems to me that political differences spring from differing notions of what the "ideal" of America really is. For me, it is freedom of a people; it is self-determination with the knowledge that government should always be accountable to us.
The most common thread I hear in the sermons at church every week is that we humans are constantly failing to live up to the ideals God and Christ have set for us. Whether one is Christian or not, it's still easy to see what this means: the message is that God and Christ love us despite our failure to live up to their ideals. The same can be applied to the idea of Patriotism. When I say that I am disappointed in America, what I am really saying is that the actions of the nation of America has failed to live up to the ideal of America.
I am disappointed that America has committed an invasion of another country on less than honest pretenses. I am disappointed that America has waged a war of such ineptitude that less and less good can honestly be seen to eventually come of it. I am disappointed that the word "Christian" in this country has come to refer in our national discourse to a small subset of extremely rigid thinkers. I am disappointed that science is embraced in some circumstances, but wilfully ignored in others.
But I'm also proud that an American president said "You know, we should go to the Moon" -- and less than nine years later, there we were. I'm proud that America took elements of aboriginal African music from its forced African immigrants and developed it into jazz, and I'm proud that this jazz fused with classical music. I'm proud that the American military chose to invest in these gigantic, ungainly machines called "computers" back in the 40s, and I'm proud that a few decades later the American defense establishment worked on getting computers in distant places to talk to one another, laying the basic groundwork for our current Internet. I'm proud that a former Vice President, defeated for the one office higher than that, went on to advocate strongly for a crucial environmental issue, and I'm frankly proud that an American changed my life when he took me to a galaxy far, far away.
That's why the notion that liberals do not truly love America is so absurd. If liberals were indifferent to America, we could hardly be disappointed in her.
I couldn't be proud of America if I didn't already love America, and I couldn't be disappointed in America if I didn't already love America. That's what it all means, in the end. And if your idea of what it is to love America rules out the very possibility of being disappointed in her, then I have to question which of us truly loves America.