Our concepts of patriotism can exclude many

Recent discussions with fellow Americans of right-wing persuasion have made me think the word “patriotism” ought to be banished like a Guatemalan child at our Southern border.

Either that, or people who use it should be required simultaneously to define it. Even though it’s not in my regular lexicon, I thought I knew the meaning. Now, observing the party that claims exclusive ownership, I have to ask:

If patriotism means love of country, what, beyond declaration, constitutes showing it? Do we discharge our patriotic duty by saluting the flag? Are extra points awarded for shedding tears? Can we slap “support our troops” stickers on bumpers and call it good, or does patriotism require willingness to pay enough in taxes actually to support them?

Is patriotism defined solely by risking death for our country, as I did serving in Vietnam, where I was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received? What about ordering someone else’s kids to do the dying? If it’s all about the troops, does patriotism include voting for wars but against jobs programs for veterans? Is criticism of our country unpatriotic by definition? Would that include not only political dissenters but candidates claiming the U.S. isn’t great while suborning violence against protesters? What’s the patriotism score for denouncing Barack Obama versus George Bush, and where’s the meter? The president just ordered another military pay raise. He said he wanted to give more, but budget restraints don’t allow it. Which way does the needle point on that? Are the restraints patriotic?

Ought we define as patriots teachers who spend their own money to provide adequate supplies for their students? If so, does the term stop applying if they join a union? What about just showing up for work every day? If that’s not patriotic, what is Marco Rubio, record-breaking senatorial absentee?

Do patriots hide income overseas? Is voting against school bonds and levies patriotic? I don’t love paying taxes, but I’ve never voted against school funding: love of country and hope for its future demands it. Some who claim more patriotism than me write letters urging voting against that funding. Does either of us deserve patriot points? In whose ledger? And what about science? Does accepting the evidence for manmade climate change mean you hate oil companies and, therefore, America? Must patriots deny climate change? A lot of self-described ones do.

Does arguing for sensible gun laws demonstrate disregard for the Second Amendment and lack of patriotism? Must one accept the Ten Commandments in courthouses to confirm support for the First? Is demanding separation a position that affirms the ideal of protecting all forms of belief, or is it treasonous apostasy? For that matter, can only Christians be considered patriots?

“I believe in patriotism,” a reader of my column wrote to me, in a way that suggested, because I’m a liberal, I don’t. He listed several other things he thinks separate conservative and liberal ideals: low taxes, support for the First and Second Amendments, limited government, strong military. Who, I wonder, prefers government bigger than necessary, or taxes higher than required to finance our needs? Who wants our military to be weak? We may differ in amounts and direction of spending, maybe even in definitions of weak and strong; but in patriotism? Only if the concept is wholly about how many wars we should be fighting, with how many unwanted M1 Abrams tanks and unusable F-35 fighters, or how many of whose boots should be on which foreign ground.

Great riches have been made through defense spending. Might that play a role in the extent to which we’ve been taught to see patriotism only in the military light? Might it also explain the red-hot wedge of anger that’s been driven between citizens based on whether they identify as conservative or liberal? Most liberals think spending more on defense than the next ten countries added together is enough; that domestic spending protects liberty and enables the American dream at least as much as carpet bombing and reinvading the Middle East. Is that where lies the line between patriotism and lack thereof?

If that’s not it, who keeps flogging the idea, and how did they manage to convince so many people?

Email Sid Schwab at columnsid@gmail.com.

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