Nearly two decades ago, The Nation invited fourteen thinkers to address the question of just what patriotism is and ought to be. Their illuminating answers encapsulate a predicament still facing progressives: how to express love for one’s country while forthrightly combating its defects. So, for this year’s Fourth of July, we extended the same question to our readers, who responded in droves. Below, we’re reprinting some of our favorites replies from among the many hundreds we received from readers coast to coast. We’ll publish as many of the submissions as possible on our community page and we’ll be asking our readers to share their views again soon.
Never wanted to cross a border out of the USA, I have always felt blessed to have been born in this country. I have driven across the country from coast to coast several times always finding it stunningly beautiful from East to West and back; North, South, or central highways. This land is NOT our country—The people are! The way we govern is. The laws are. We take exceptional pride in our Constitution but it is only as perfect as its interpretation as applied to every single individual. My idea of patriotism is to work to assure that every citizen and visitor to the USA should be treated with the dignity of humanity that the Constitution intended, acknowledging that when one person is abused, we are all abused, and if we don’t speak up, we are all guilty of that mistreatment. We are only exceptional when we care effectively for the least of ours, the poor, the old, the infirm, the disenfranchised, the orphaned, the jobless, the hungry, the homeless, the war-torn veterans and their families and those seeking asylum from abusive governments outside of our borders. We can’t say this country is exceptional unless we each act in an exceptional manner towards our neighbors.
To be patriotic means to tell the truth about the state of one’s nation, its governance and the possible solutions to a nation’s problems. Patriotism is Truth.
Carleton Stevens Coon, Jr.
I am proud to be an American, not because of the affluence, nor even because of our technological skills, and especially not because of our current military prowess. I am proud because my country broke the pattern of rule by a hereditary aristocracy backed by established religion, replacing it with democracy, the rule of law and separation of church and state.
I am proud because during the past two and a quarter centuries my country has succeeded in assimilating immigrants from many regions and welding them into a functioning community. It is this success that has made us what we are today. Now we face a challenge as important as the one when we first broke the prevailing mold back in the eighteenth century. That challenge is to lead the rest of the world in the development of institutional structures for a global community which can end major wars and coordinate responses to environmental threats while preserving the core elements of liberty and respect for diversity that have brought us this far. We may not succeed, but we are the country best qualified to provide that leadership, and that alone is enough to make me proud to be an American.
Patriotism is simply the loving, honoring, defending and improving of the ideals and rights contained in our constitution and laws. It is the continued striving to realize the “liberty and justice for all” that we pledge. It is our enduring wish to become that which we believe and say we are.
Patriotism should engender a spirit of gratefulness and appreciation for what freedoms we have but we should also fearlessly stand up for and protect our rights if they are being chipped away by government, big business or special interests. A patriot must not be afraid to criticize his country if it is headed in the wrong direction and he must not sink into cynicism and despair. Patriotism does not mean that we should be arrogant or boastful and think that our country is better than all others. A patriot loves his country but is also a citizen of the world and realizes that we are all interconnected. Is this naivety? I think of it as idealism and the human spirit needs to strive for high ideals or it shrivels. What I love most about America is the people who refuse to let their spirit shrivel.
Patriotism means several things to me. On the one hand, there is the traditional sense, demonstrated by a common wish to maintain, yet also improve the well-being of the population. This is completely different from the extremist flag-waving and narrow-minded jingoism, which I define as ‘pseudo-patriotism.’
What I believe in is not this hateful misappropriation of the concept. Although we citizens may not agree on all issues, we should have respect for others and their ideas, and a mutual wish to work out our differences. By nurturing a cohesive nation whose citizens share a genuine sense of commonality, we develop the country to adapt to modern times and the new needs that come with it.
Additionally, it wasn’t too long ago that paying taxes was considered patriotic. The late Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, felt that one’s true investment in a society was by paying taxes, to maintain a civilization. It is a shame that this view has fallen from favor with so many Americans today. One day, I hope that the USA will have learned from the bitter lessons of its past. Remember what Abraham Lincoln said: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Carson City, NV
Telling the unvarnished truth to the American people always and damn the consequences. Studs Terkel, I.F. Stone, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and my favorite modern philosopher, George Carlin, are all patriots of the first order.
When you can support your country because it logically makes sense to you—i.e., doing x will benefit future generations but will not hurt others’ next generations—it is a patriotic. One needs to think about the cause-and-effect of their actions before, not in retrospect, of acting.
For example, a patriotic person should not support the wars in the Middle-East because while it does protect our oil—the fix for our gas addiction—it blights the Middle-Eastern people… further marginalizing them in the world. The resulting radicalization of the occupé, in turn, causes the U.S. and the world harm through our own creation—Islamofacism.
So our occupation in the Middle-East, and other actions of one’s country, should be scrutinized. Logic aided by the benefits of knowledge of history empowers an individual to think… to become a patriot, regardless of where his thinking takes him. Patriotism is a process: there is no "right" view which makes one a patriot, and those who claim there is one patriotic answer are surely not enviable.
Costa Mesa, CA
Patriotism is hard work.
Patriotism is the unselfish act to promote and expand the greatness of our principles.
It is about helping each other to be better than we can be as individuals.
Sometimes it means picking up arms and going to war.
Sometimes it means picking up a book and reading to a child.
Sometimes it means picking up a sign and marching in protest.
Sometimes it means picking up your brother and giving him a helping hand.
We must practice the Patriotism that is in our hearts.
It has always been there whenever good people take time to help a stranger.
My first recognition of true patriotism emerged while I was in college (University of Minnesota, 1954). It was there I learned that the TRUE patriot is one who calls out our country when we believe it has acted wrongly; criticizes America when it strays from the principles that made it great and free; and objects to those actions that damage our fairness, equality and Constitutional freedoms. The true patriot is one who is an activist in keeping America on the path that originally made it the beacon of liberty throughout the world.
Castro Valley, CA
Perhaps it is easier to say what it is not. When a government does the following it is "Patriotic" to resist it and "Unpatriotic" to support it. Supporting a govt just because it is your govt no matter what it does is UNPATRIOTIC.
A patriot does not support its government if it:
A. chooses to change the balance of powers between branches such as we have experienced over the last administration and this present one. This clealy is not what the constitution has stood for.
B. chooses to make war and occupy other countries out of fear of the possibility of being attacked. Reminds me of what my mother told me so many years ago… A coward attacks out of fear and attacks first in any manner possible.
C. chooses to limit individual freedoms under the guize of security, once again a cowardly act done under "fear."
D. chooses to put "party" above country such as Congress has done for the last administrations, especially since Reagan. Thus, relinquishes its role as an equal partner under the constitution.
E. chooses corporate interest over individual or public interests. Once congress and the administration start acting as one, what follows is bedfellows with corporate interests; The "military industrial complex" or fascism.
F. chooses to police the supreme court and any judicial appointments, thus, eleminating the last chance of a "check and balance" goverment. Such a govt can not be turned around and what follows is what history has too often illustrated. This is all too obvious under the last ruling of giving corporations free hand to buy goverment.
Patriotism is a good thing. It means love of our country and devotion to its people. It means pride in its achievements, even where they are unfinished. That means pride in our Bill of Rights and democratic heritage. It means pride in the achievements of our working people and their allies in such areas as public education, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, the right to organize a union. It celebrates the rich diversity of our people and their achievements in the fight for equality for all.
Patriotism celebrates the great cultural achievements of American writers, artists and performers. It celebrates our great athletes. It celebrates our great accomplishments in science and engineering. It celebrates and protects our country’s natural beauties and resources.
Nationalism is a bad thing. It is a belief in the superiority of our country over others. It is divisive, racist and anti-democratic. It is allegiance to the corporate class that dominates our country and pursues maximum profits at the expense of our people. Nationalism justifies imperialist wars of conquest and aggression. Patriotism requires a relentless fight against nationalism.
Gayle Rogers Bullington
Patriotism is not nationlistic—it is having love and respect for all humanity and the earth itself. A true patriot seeks what IS GOOD FOR ALL. Let the purity of the soul bring light to others and not death in mindless butchery. If you lose respect for others you have lost respect for yourself.
To me Patriotism is as simple as being a good steward for and of America. Be active and VOTE instead of sitting on the sidelines to condemn, complain and criticize. So many from this country and from around the world have died for this precious privilege of voting. Another aspect of Patriotism is that we should all extend kindness and understanding to those from around the world. This is not a sign of weakness as some on the Right would see it. Rather it is truly a strength!
New York, NY
Patriotism means nothing to me. It is a mindless acceptance of your role in a tribe (much like a religion or a cult). The progressive left has long wasted its time trying to prove that we are just as patriotic as the right. Let the right have patriotism—it’s as meaningless as most of the things they like to own. I would prefer a nation of thoughtful, compassionate people who care about the people they live with and the lives they lead. People who don’t have to prove anything to anyone. People who support the nation when it’s right, and oppose it when it’s wrong. And who don’t flinch in the face of criticism, but look it in the eye and say, you are wrong. And don’t say, hey i’m just as patriotic as you are, but i just think that sometimes it’s more patriotic to be critical. It’s a waste of energy. It’s like having a conversation about the existence of God with an Evangelical. It will never go anywhere, and it will sap your spirit and your strength. And distract you from the things that really need to be done in this world. Be smart. Be thoughtful. Be caring. And don’t care about who is more (or less) patriotic.
Patriotism means having the courage to challenge your nation’s leaders and their goals for the nation. A true patriot decries statements like "my nation, right or wrong." A patriot looks beyond national boundaries and pledges allegiance to the global community.
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
I may not be American but patriotism should be universal. Being a patriot means wanting what’s right for all, not you, your town, your state or your party. What is right for everyone in your country is what really matters. It means putting local requirements aside in favor of the whole.
A prime example of what should be patriotic is health care. Does anyone really believe that everyone does not deserve care? America is the only leading economy that does not provide this for all their citizens.
Sadly there are so many who don’t believe in equality. Sadly money rules. Money is not patriotic. Money doesn’t bleed for her people. Freedom is earned and it comes at a cost. In recent years so many have been willing to give up those freedoms. Fear has been sold as more important. We all have to be willing to pay the price. That means we have to be willing to try terrorists as criminals with full Miranda rights. People should be arrested and tried only when the burden of proof is fulfilled. Arresting everyone who ‘looks like a terrorist’ is not freedom. Patriotism means supporting the Constitution for what is was meant for… and not the twisted version we’ve been sold.
David B Teague
First, Patriotism has nothing to do with fireworks, or singing the national anthem, or pledging allegiance to the Flag. True patriotism is understanding the Constitution and the freedoms that are enshrined there, the freedom to worship as we choose OR NOT TO WORSHIP if we choose that, and not to have the religion of someone else imposed on us. It is the freedom of a reporter to dig up the story and not be imprisoned or otherwise punished by the government for publishing things that embarrass the government. It is the freedom to vote for our representative, to associate with whom we please. It is the freedom to vote and to run for office. Finally, patriotism is the privilege and obligation to fight for the country. It is also many other things.
Rocky Mount, NC
Patriotism for me means the love of one’s people, our struggles and the cultures that reflect our spirit and sense of solidarity. In the US we are a multinational, multiracial, multi-gendered society. Patriotism includes an appreciation, even a reverence, for all our aspirations—as well as for the continuing sacrifices required to establish in time a country with freedom and justice for all. Patriotism, therefore, is active. It demands engagement and study, openness and initiative and a critical spirit that can go against the structures of domination that allow a small minority to speak in our name, send us to war and appropriate the wealth produced by our labor.
For me patriotism means taking pride in my country’s and countrymen’s accomplishments while realistically acknowledging our shortcomings. It means extending my hand to all Americans regardless of who they are or how long they have been Americans. And finally, it means being, oneself, a responsible citizen, or as the poet Robert Frost put it, "leaving the wood pile a little higher when you leave than it was when you got there."