It's a loaded word, patriotism. A patriot to one country is often a terrorist to another. Look at the original American patriots — to the British, they were just a bunch of criminal mixers, stirring up trouble in the New World. Patriotism is all about perspective.
My grandfather was a patriot. He was a 20-something Jewish kid in Bayonne, N.J., when his country called him to war against Hitler's Germany. He answered the call and fought his way through northern Africa, Sicily, and the Italian mainland. He was honorably discharged after the war, with $1,162.12 in his pocket, a newfound fluency in Italian, and a desire to never speak of the war again.
But patriotism isn't always this clear-cut. Were the women who stayed behind during World War II, the Rosie the Riveters who worked in the factories, as patriotic as the soldiers overseas? I certainly think so, even though their lives weren't in immediate danger. We would not have won the war without their help.
Later, were the civil rights activists of the 1950s every bit as patriotic? I absolutely think so. They fought to better our country, and in most cases they fought in courageous, non-violent ways.
But what about those who acted against them, trying to keep our country separate-but-equal? They operated under the guise of patriotism, too, trying to protect a way of life they cherished. They fought for an image of our country they thought was best. Were they patriots? I don't think so. See, this patriotism thing — it's multifaceted at best and a double-edged sword at worst.
Last month on a trip to the USS Yorktown, I was shocked to find, amid all the commemorative plaques and hats, a display of Confederate flags for sale. I'd just spent the prior hour feeling pride in my country, roaming the halls of a ship that made a difference in countless World War II and Korean War battles. I felt good. I felt patriotic. And then I found myself face-to-face with a symbol of discrimination in this country. A symbol of one of the bloodiest wars in our nation's history — our war against ourselves. A symbol of lynch mobs and Jim Crow and separate-but-certainly-not-equal. I was shocked to see those flags hanging there in one of our most celebrated patriotic places. No one around me seemed bothered by it, but I sure was. To some, flying that flag is patriotic. To me, it's horrific.
In the past year we've seen all sorts of acts committed in the name of patriotism. Some have been downright heroic (Boston surely had its share of heroes; so did Newtown. Patriots all.). Others have been of a more dubious nature. Is exposing questionable practices committed by your government patriotic? Some say yes, some say no. The debate can rage on forever.
This year, on July 4th, let's set all that aside. Let's remember the good side of patriotism. Our country, operating as a democracy for over 200 years. Our citizens, willing to step up and give their lives to save others in the face of terrorism, both here and abroad. Our friends and family, lost to war but never forgotten.
Let's put aside that dubious word, patriotism, and just remember that we as a country are here for each other, and let's do our best to take care of one another. At least on the Fourth of July.