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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: On patriotism

by Brenda Looper | May 26, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.
Brenda Looper

On Memorial Day, I always think of my grandpa and my uncle, though they didn't have to sacrifice their lives in battle. Both served in the Navy, my grandpa during World War II as a fireman on the hospital ship USS Hope, where, unfortunately, he saw quite a few members of the military die.

Grandpa never talked much about his experience during the war, but had someone asked, he likely would have just said he'd done his patriotic duty.

At this time of year, we hear a lot about patriotism. We also hear a lot of people claiming that one can't be patriotic if they don't support their party.

Sigh. Do I really have to explain, again, that patriotism has nothing to do with party politics? As I wrote last July 1, "Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as 'love for or devotion to one's country.' The Oxford English Dictionary says a patriot is 'a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.' In none of the two dozen online dictionaries I checked did I find that it meant devotion to a party or leader."

That hasn't changed.

The father of our country, George Washington (with a healthy assist by Alexander Hamilton), warned of partisanship in his farewell address:

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty. ...

"It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions."

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention former President Teddy Roosevelt and his May 1918 essay, "Lincoln and Free Speech," in which he wrote:

"Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him in so far as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth--whether about the president or about anyone else--save in the rare cases where this would make known to the enemy information of military value which would otherwise be unknown to him."

Your party affiliation doesn't determine your level of patriotism. I know liberals, conservatives, independents, social Democrats, Libertarians and more who are equally patriotic, and who don't feel the need to scream about how patriotic they are because their actions clearly show their love for their country.

It's patriotism, not nationalism (which is more exclusionary), that informs their actions when they stand for their fellow Americans, no matter their party affiliation, gender identity, race or any other thing used to divide us. It's patriotism when they stand against those who would divide us or defy the results of a legal election and the consequences for acting violently against the seat of power on the basis of a lie.

But does patriotism mean we ignore the bad parts of our history? No. You can love your country and not like things that it's done.

William A. Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow for Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, noted in his 2018 essay "In defense of a reasonable patriotism": "It is often hard to acknowledge that one's country has erred, perhaps even committed hideous crimes. Sometimes monsters masquerade as patriots and manipulate patriotic sentiments to serve their own ends.

"But just as patriots can go astray, they can also acknowledge their mistakes and do their best to make reparations for them. No one ever accused Ronald Reagan of being deficient in patriotism, but he was the president who formally apologized to Japanese Americans on behalf of the country for their unjust internment during World War II."

Patriots recognize that their country has erred in its past behavior toward marginalized people. They see that efforts have been made to, at the very least, recognize and apologize, and to make laws to prevent such things happening again. More needs to be done, but it's a start.

It's hard not to be proud of that progress ... at least till someone tries to reverse it.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com.

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