Monday, June 15

Contemplating Patriotism

I don't really think of myself as a patriot in the way that many of those who serve this country do. But the definition of "patriot" is fairly broad and, therefore, forgiving. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, "patriot" means "one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests."

This is a big country and I've been privileged to see a lot of it. When I think of myself in the context of patriotism, I don't think of loving America, the physical country and its geography. While there is a whole bunch of it of which I'm extremely fond, there are parts I can do without.

But I love the general idea of the United States of America, our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the efforts of those who first came to this country and those who carved out the idea of these United States of America and those who worked and died to make these United States of America a reality.

I think about this every once in a while when I'm in a place where a diversity of cultures and languages are co-existing, even collaborating, when there are no divides based on race, creed, or anything else. I love seeing people really behaving as though skin color doesn't matter; when that happens, I'm proud of what this country represents and can represent.

Heaven knows we are not remotely close to perfect, though I fear there are a few too many in various positions of power and influence who seem to think so. But even the challenge of those discussions and arguments reinforce the powerful opportunity for speech we have in this country.

A lot of this came home to me yesterday for a few reasons. First, I was reviewing the what happened on June 14 in history and learned that in 1777, Congress adopted the Stars & Stripes as the national flag. And June 14, 1877 was the first Flag Day and marked the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the national flag. I thought about what had had to happen to get to June 14, 1777 to be able to select a national flag and then what had transpired in the intervening 100 years before my country marked its first official Flag Day.

Second, I was following the story of Iranian election. The story is even more compelling today as I read and heard about the thousands of young people who ignored that they had been forbidden to gather and that through word-of-mouth they are planning to gather and protest again tomorrow. The government has, apparently, shut down cell phone access as well as online access, but the word is spreading and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has asked for an investigation into possible voter fraud, even after he certified the election results with what seemed like exceptional response. I am awed by the energy and passion of the Iranian people. I loved the sign that read, "I want my vote back." If only we could find a way to counteract the electoral numbness in this country; if only we could find a way to help the American people feel as though their votes actually matter.

Third, I went to the grocery store. That in itself isn't a particularly patriotic event, though I'm often acutely aware that as I stand in a aisle complaining that my brand of something seems to have been discontinued that I have a ridiculous amount of choice. What did inexplicably reduce me to tears as I wandered some of the aisles was a group of family members collecting goods for members of a Marine Expeditionary Force. I was moved by the number of people in the store who were, like me, looking first at the list on a piece of paper and then checking the aisles and shelves to get what they had said could be shipped. I'd set aside one of my recyclable bags so I could fill it with sunscreen, cough drops, lip balm, wet wipes, yo yos (they wanted fun stuff, too), and a bunch of other stuff somehow feeling that this contribution was paltry.

I'm not a fan of the Iraq War. While I think we did a good thing in toppling Saddam Hussein, I think we did a bad thing in not being prepared for such a quick turn of events and for certainly not being prepared for the condition of the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. We seemed to make a lot of stupid and arrogant mistakes and have been paying for that hubris for the past 6 years. Even still, men and women are in Iraq for a reason and they are serving my country so that I can wander around a grocery story and buy whatever I want whenever I want. While there are an unconscionable number of people in this country who cannot do as I do, the fact is that there are opportunities and possibilities here that exist nowhere else and precisely because of those men and women who have served this country in a variety of ways.

And so, as I handed my stuff over to the young boy who said "Thank you" so politely, and as I nodded to the young woman who asked me if I wanted a "Support our Troops" bracelet because I was unable to speak and very grateful for my sunglasses, I thought about patriotism and what it means to me.

I vote, but I don't do much else to promote the interests of this country. I'm informed, I pay taxes, I support the USO, there's an American flag that always flies in the front of my house, and now I have a yellow "Support our Troops" bracelet. But I'm just a short step away from those who don't bother to vote. I'm too old to fight in the military and never would have pursued that option anyway for a number of reasons. I don't suppose there's a category for uncoordinated people who are accident-prone, but I'd have to be in that category. But there are things I can do to support my country's authority and its interests and it doesn't have to be big like run for office. Now I just have to identify what that thing might be and do it well.