By Sarah Nicell || Layout Assistant
When I was a child, my family attended the Fourth of July parade yearly. We would all get dressed up in our Old Navy color-coordinated Independence Day outfits as though the Founding Fathers themselves would steer their mighty steeds through the street, just in case good old Ben and John were waiting to award a special someone the “Most American” badge. It was a small parade for a small group of people in a small town, but as one of those small people, it seemed grandiose. Baton twirlers, musicians, pageant queens, boy scouts, and enthusiastic firemen tossed candy in every direction as well as stickers, buttons, pencils, and business cards. For me, an eight-year-old, it felt a bit like getting fun little gifts from a prize box without actually having to do any work, so naturally, I adored the occasion.
Most memorable, though, were the flags. Mini wooden sticks with little fabric painted with reds and whites and blues were handed out to us in droves, flying stiffly despite the summer breeze. To me, it was obvious what they were. Our nation’s flag, my flag, a symbol I saw daily; it was a representative of freedom, of liberty, of patriotism. Those flags swelled with pride, those fifty-starred tokens of adoration, and with every wave those inflexible, cheap banners managed, I waved back.
I was proud of the United States, and as that child, I felt myself to be a true Patriot. I liked life. I liked liberty. I liked happiness. What wasn’t there to like? Red and white and blue were happy colors, especially together, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. In my humble, pre-pubescent opinion, my country was perfect.
Ten years later, I feel differently. As I have grown older, or at least in this present moment, the flag fails to reproduce its former influence; instead it fills me with embarrassment. As a result of my education, my experience, and my unfortunate ability to read the news, it has become obvious that patriotism is not just a love of the fireworks and barbecues we celebrate with once a year. True patriotism, or being a “Patriot” for that matter, greatly contrasts the definition that my childhood mind generated.
Allow me to elaborate:
Patriotism, as defined by Merriam Webster, is “love for or devotion to one’s country.” It is a simple definition of a not so simple concept and leaves the interpreter with a few questions. What, then, is a Patriot: the individual who must carry out patriotism? Are they a defender of the nation’s values? Can they oppose the country’s views if their interests diverge? How far must they go to support their country’s cause?
During the past four years, half of the country seemed to take it upon themselves to answer these questions. My true understanding of what many Americans believe to be patriotism came to fruition in the Era of Trumpism, a time in which regardless of consequence, the president’s supporters would do almost anything to defend their interpretation of America’s values. Referring to themselves as “Patriots,” Trump’s backers refused to consider any critique of their beloved country and framed the U.S. as the best nation in the world (though according to the “Overall Best Countries Ranking” for 2020 by USnews.com, the United States is not in the top five). They did not tolerate movements toward reform, aside from those improvements which the former president had denounced. To truly defend their great nation from insecurity (or what many like to call “an election”), they decided to take the fight to the Capitol with a terroristic riot in the name of republican devotion.
Even if the events of January 6th had never happened, it is undeniable that many citizens of this nation interpret patriotism in the ways that were displayed that day. To many, patriotism has become synonymous with defending your country and its president no matter what, including making excuses for the ugly, the offensive, and the harmful. By donning the reds and whites and blues that are intended to represent the United States, these neo-Patriots believe themselves to be expressing their undying loyalty to the soil beneath their feet and the leader that rules it.
It is also worth noting that the soil beneath these specific white feet was not of their fair creation. The country beneath those pale soles was built on the backs of Black people, stolen from the hands of Indigenous nations, and forced into creation by horrific institutions that will immortalize the trauma of millions for the rest of time. Where does the white man’s loyalty go in a world that he did not create? If anyone has the right to feel immense pride in the development and growth of the United States—if anyone has the right to exercise patriotism, by any definition that they so choose—it is certainly not any white person, myself included.
Is that what patriotism really is, though? Undying loyalty, regardless of the nation’s morality? Let’s analyze. I concede that devotion involves standing up for your country, regardless of how you choose to interpret its foundational documents. Defending the President of the United States as a citizen of his country is too quite a devoted move to make, but I implore you: after rereading that original definition of patriotism, ask yourself whether that devotion is a choice made out of love or simply out of loyalty?
To be devoted to a nation is to be loyal to it, and I understand that for many, loyalty lies in supporting the office of the president, regardless of the president’s character. However, to love a nation is not to love it blindly, and in ignoring the systemic issues within the very core of the United States, your love means nothing to patriotism. After all, our country has a lot of really, really big problems, and an unwillingness to help resolve these issues—while still claiming to love one’s country—is somewhat disturbing.
To create a simple comparison, imagine the Trumpian government is your toxic boyfriend. He possibly hurts your friends and family, and he is constantly bullying people around him (in this example, representing thousands of Americans, particularly those disadvantaged by the political structure of the United States). You turn a blind eye. Why? Because your boyfriend is confident, your type, and honestly, he gives you a lot of benefits: he pays for dinner, gives you a place to live, and makes you feel at home. Despite these advantages for you, he is undoubtedly harming some incredibly important people in your life and out of it, but you stay with him anyway. And since you’re staying with him forever, and he’s not making you feel bad, why even ask him to be nice to others at all? You are inarguably devoted to him…
But is that love? Only the very worst kinds of relationships are so shallow when one partner continues to adore the other despite his flaws (and with no inclination to fix them). Those kinds of relationships are damaging to the rest of the population.
This unwavering devotion to the United States of America is the type of excessive patriotism that has risen to the level of hate. An astounding denial of the country’s major problems and a subsequent refusal to repair them is now grossly misinterpreted as patriotic behavior.
Here’s what I think it means to be a patriot: To be a Patriot is to love your country so much that you are willing to admit that it may not be the best it can be. To be a Patriot is to love your nation so strongly that you want to fix its issues to make it a better place. To be a Patriot is to be devoted to a place worth fixing.
Patriotism is not loving America for what it is.
It is a call to action.
First-year Sarah Nicell is a layout assistant. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.