Sunday, June 22, 2008

Patriotism Runs Amok

I think I’m on solid ground when I say that most Americans tend to be patriotic, especially this time of year. We are right in between Flag Day and Independence Day. Our collective patriotism is so robust that it explodes, in the form of fireworks.

Patriotism is defined as being the love of, and the devotion to one’s country. Since, it seems, that I typically find it necessary to take up a contrary position to the view of the masses, I will admit here that I am not particularly patriotic.

Oh, I enjoy the Fourth of July festivities. And I still find that a good rendition of America the Beautiful or the Star Spangled Banner can give me goose bumps. But I still refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t pledge allegiance to anyone or anything. I’m my own person.

Drilling down into why I don’t claim to be patriotic requires a definition or two. If patriotism is the love of one’s country, then what is meant by the word country? Is it the land? America has some extraordinarily beautiful landscapes, but then so do many other countries.

Perhaps it is the people that make up the country. But America is probably more pluralistic than any other nation. We are a very diverse group of people. There are probably as many differences between the average San Franciscan and the average Iowan as there are between the average American (whatever that is) and the average German or Australian.

Perhaps a country can be defined as the form of government that runs it. I’ll grant that our Founding Fathers were really onto something. They wrote a brilliant document that we now call the Constitution, which outlines the basic premises that govern our nation. The fact this 200-year-old document is still relevant today speaks volumes.

But the Constitution is not the government. The government can loosely be defined as being those in charge. And personally, I’m not too proud of our government right now, especially the one in charge.

Most Americans, if asked why they are patriotic, would probably bring up our freedom. America is a free nation. It is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” But come on. Does anyone believe that Americans are any freer than Canadians, Germans, Britons, or Italians?

Americans have their Bill of Rights. And while other countries may not have a two-centuries-old document granting them their rights, they still have basically the same rights as we do. There are many free countries in the world. And, frankly, some of them grant their citizens more freedoms than we in America have.

The truth is, I was born and raised in America and so I’m an American. But I would venture to say that I could be just as happy living in England, France, Germany, or Australia. And if I were living in one of those countries, I would not be patriotic toward them either, although I would thank my lucky stars I didn’t have a leader like George W. Bush.

Sometimes I think Americans overdo their patriotism without even realizing it. My daughter and I were sitting in the Arts Garden over Washington Street in Indianapolis recently. We were looking east and making a little game out of counting the number of American flags we could see. Within only two blocks, we counted an even dozen. These are permanent fixtures, not simply displays for the Fourth of July.

My daughter mentioned that during her trip to France last year, the only French flags flying were on the grounds of government buildings. Her friend from England said it is the same way there and she was amazed at actually seeing an American flag flying over McDonalds when she visited here.

Don’t get me wrong. Flying a flag is fine; it is what we do in America. Being proud of one’s country, however you define it, is fine, too. But from a historical perspective, when patriotism runs amok, it becomes nationalism. And in the past, that has been sufficient incentive for starting wars or otherwise being a global bully. And that’s how much of the world is starting to view us.

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