A patriot, as defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary, is “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.” Definition number two is “an automated surface-to-air missile designed for preemptive strikes.”
Such definitions explain why the notion of patriotism is anathema to many progressives. The jingoistic version of patriotism has, of course, been deployed throughout American history to galvanize Americans around war, traditional cultural values and the oppression of minorities.
So as soon as Occupy Wall Street captured the attention of the world, it is no surprise that the right leaped to label it anti-American. Talk to young protestors down at Zuccotti Park, however, and you’ll find a crop of zealous patriots born from the movement itself.
“I think the very act of being down here is an act of patriotism in itself,” says Lindsay, a 24-year-old who works at a non-profit. “It’s being committed to what this country looks like.” She says she’s been disappointed by activist communities in the past, but that the inclusive structure of OWS has inspired in her a newfound patriotism, tied to the belief that this movement really can “move the country forward.”
Megan Hafner, 23, graduated in June and moved to New York in search of meaningful work. She says she didn’t used to feel so proud of her country. “Growing up in the Bush years, it was a very stifling time to be a child,” she laughs.
She’s found in this horizontal, cooperative movement the impetus to work towards becoming a better person herself as she works to better her country. It’s about “holding the community I’m living with accountable....Being committed to a place, I want to fight for it to become better just as I want to become better myself.”
For Hafner, this feeling of pride in her community is new, too. “I think this is the first time I’m really feeling jazzed about connecting with Americans,” she says.
Occupier Robert James Carlson had three jobs in Minnesota before dropping them to come see what OWS was all about. He has been sleeping in Zuccotti for nearly a month and a half, and has carved out a job for himself doing “outreach” work. He walks around the city with a sign that reads “I could lose my job for having a voice,” in order to spur debate in the wider community.
Carlson says the message and potential of this movement have completely altered his feelings about his country. “This is the proudest I’ve ever been of America in the 25 years of my life,” he says.
An older Occupy supporter who spoke to The Nation noted that there is a difference between the patriotism of these young occupiers and that of the last significant left social movement. William Hyde, an actor, writer and carpenter who “make[s] money here and there,” was part of the anti-Vietnam era and moved here from California to participate in this generation’s movement. What differentiates OWS, he says, is that its form of patriotism is more inclusive. “The movement in the 60s alienated working class America, and it was dead by the early 70s. This movement does everything it can possibly do to embrace the working class.”
Regardless, some are still uncomfortable with the word “patriotism.” Mike Griffiths is a 21-year-old college student from Wisconsin who took the semester off to come occupy. He’s been camping out since the beginning and works translating the OWS Journal into Spanish. “I don’t know what I think about patriotism,” he says, with skeptical look. “I think we should work on redefining that.” He’d rather focus on solidarity with the international movement, not identifying with a particular group of people. “How about us being patriotic to the human race?” he suggests.
Whether occupiers feel they are being patriotic dissidents or patriotic towards the human race, they are undertaking a thorough reappropriation and redefinition of the term. In essence, they are occupying the very concept of patriotism itself.
Hafner believes the very “antithesis of patriotism” is failing to question what ‘patriotism’ itself means. She rejects “throwing around” easy sound bites, calling them “stamps and signals and indicators that you don’t have to try to understand or break down.” Hyde agrees. He says those who are truly anti-American are the one percent in government and business who are radically redistributing wealth upwards, away from the needs of the 99 percent. “You have a government that wraps itself in the flag that really acts un-American...This movement is trying to reclaim its government, reclaim its flag.”
Gabriel Johnson, a 19-year-old student at Rutgers Newark, was among the crowd at the General Assembly last Friday. He was grinning and waving an American flag. Johnson says he came down to the park on September 17th, the official start date of OWS, and has been toting the red, white and blue around ever since. He says he’s bought about fifteen flags from the vendor at Zuccotti. “I’ve been [his] one-man stimulus program,” he says.