I know you’re a patriot, but what am I?

First, an introduction… what brought me to this point? I know that’s a loaded question, try and keep your speculation to yourself. A friend of mine was relaying a conversation they had with one of their friends, a friend from another country. They were having a light conversation about the definition of “patriotism” and what it means in this country to be a “patriot.” The second nugget of inspiration for this entry was the U.S. House passage of a bill calling for an amendment to ban the burning of the American Flag.

That got me thinking, what does it mean to be a patriot? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to us, collectively? Is there a consensus? This foreign friend of a friend had an opinion, that patriotism is an unquestioning, unconditional love of country. Now I’m no linguist, nor am I a sociologist or politician, but that sounds more like the definition of nationalism to me. So, what does the dictionary have to say? According to our good friends, Merriam and Webster, a patriot is one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests. That sounds pretty good, but what’s this about “supporting its authority?” Once again, Merriam and Webster to the rescue! Authority is defined as “the power to influence command or thought, opinion, or behavior; the freedom granted by one in authority,” synonyms: “grounds, warrant.”

Let’s break it down. The love part is easy, you either love your country or you don’t; but what about your country’s authority? That’s where things get interesting, in a representative democracy; the ultimate authority resides with “we the people.” Do I love my country? You betcha! Do I accept it’s authority, namely, me and you? No problems there. Now, what about it’s interests? Ahh! Now there’s the most interesting question of them all. It’s rather subjective, that question of a country’s interests, isn’t it? Say two people have a different opinion about what their country’s best “interests” are, does that make one person a patriot and the other a traitor? Come on, should intelligence sway the patriotic scale? Surely a person’s misguided beliefs on, say, something like foreign policy, wouldn’t make that certain someone unpatriotic? Say a soldier does something heroic, which saves a fellow soldier; but his actions – while legal – have unintended political ramifications, which ultimately hurt his or her country as a whole. Does this person’s actions define him or her as a patriot or a traitor? You don’t need me to answer that, do you?

Our country, the one that we love, has many patriots. We may have different ideas about what is in our best interests, but I believe we are all patriots. Our country also has many symbols. Some of these symbols are very personal, like an immigrant’s first trip to buy a pair of Levi’s. Others are shared by all of us, like the Statue of Liberty and the Stars and Stripes. Other’s still are shared by much of the world, like democracy and freedom. My question is: are some symbols more important than others? Are there ones that we could more easily discard, without changing that which they represent? Say we change the rules of immigration, and that immigrant never buys that first pair of Levi’s, how does that change America? Say we curtail or dispose of democracy or freedom, how does that change America? Say we change the flag or tear down the Statue of Liberty in favor of a giant bronze bust of the gipper, how does that change America? Here’s what I think. A giant bronze bust of the gipper would be incredibly tacky and embarrassing, but it wouldn’t make a lick of difference to what America means. Likewise, we could change the flag – and there would be a HUGE uproar of disapproval – but it wouldn’t change what it means to be an American one bit. Toss out the constitution or meddle with our democracy, now there’s a “symbol” we can’t live without. How many freedoms do you take for granted in a day? I’m betting there are a lot, if you really thought about it. Physical symbols, like the ones we can see and feel, can serve as important reminders for what America stands for, but isn’t what America stands for more important than the reminder? The bible warns us about idolatry – the worship of statues or objects. Is it possible that this preoccupation with the flag is similar to a form of idolatry?

If you ask me, freedom is pretty important – in many cases paid for in blood. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, at least 1,171,341* soldiers died in the name of freedom. We talk about our flag and what an important symbol it is, both to us civilians as well as those soldiers who died fighting under it. But they weren’t really just fighting for a flag, were they? We talk about terrorists and the threat they pose to America. We talk about the lives that have been taken from us by terrorists, and those they’d take from us again if they could. But what of the threat that we pose to America if we contemplate changing what America stands for? What of the lives that were given to protect that which we contemplate giving up? Am I a traitor for suggesting freedom is a more important symbol than a flag? Am I a traitor for suggesting personal security should not always trump personal freedom? Am I a traitor for believing that a “pre-emptive war” abroad is not in our best interests? I may be wrong, on each count… but suggestions from the right (and 1400 Pennsylvania Ave) that my beliefs make me “unpatriotic” are not only wrong (in my humble opinion), but offensive.

I’ve spoken of freedoms before, and in the past I’ve defended our right to curtail certain freedoms. AH HA! You say, A CONTRADICTION! Recall that I only supported the curtailing of freedoms that tend to cause undue harm to other people. For example, you can’t just beat me to a bloody pulp because you didn’t like this entry. You can think about it all you want, you’re just not free to do it. You should be free to eat starchy and fatty foods, as long as you pass gas in the other room. The same with smoking, you ought to be free to do it all you want, as long as you don’t do it around me (and give me asthma, cancer, etc). Forms of pornography should continue to be illegal because it leads to the sexual exploitation of women and children, and that’s no joking, GRADE A, REALLY BAD. However, the last time I checked, the only thing burning a flag hurts is someone’s feelings – unless I happen to be wearing that flag, I definitely don’t support your right to burn me. Come to think of it, smoking a flag in a restaurant should be illegal too (you know, the whole asthma thing again).

So, which one is it? Am I a patriot or a traitor? How about you? Is this really enough information to go on?

*Includes soldier (not civilian) fatalities as a direct result of battle, as well as those soldiers who died from injuries or disease, as a result of the fighting during the following conflicts: American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Here’s a breakdown:
o American Revolution: 4435 in battle
o War of 1812: 2260 in battle
o Civil war (Union and Confederacy combined): 214,938 in battle, 283,349 in service (died of wounds or disease as a direct result of the war)
o WWI: 53,402 in battle, 63,114 in service
o WWII: 291,557 in battle, 113,842 in service
o Korea: 33,686 in battle, 20,560 in service
o Vietnam: 47,410 in battle, 42,788 in service
American soldier’s lives lost: 1,171,341
Source: Department of Veteran’s Affairs; www.va.gov/pressrel/amwars01.htm