The difficulty I have wrapping my head around patriotism is one I sometimes share with other children of immigrants, those whose heritage, like mine, was stamped with the dark face of nationalism, the imprint of a patriotism that believed the country where our forebears were born would be purified by our absence.
I feel deeply grateful for the freedoms my family inherited in becoming Americans. I find the language of the Constitution awe-inspiring. My respect is boundless for the generations who fought to establish and preserve the human rights enshrined in that document. When I travel abroad, it is clear that my carriage, speech, casual manners and obsessive hygiene mark me as an American, and I feel like one, down to my bones.
But I don't think any nation qualifies as "the best country on earth." Declarations of American superiority seem so arbitrary, like demonstrating fierce loyalty to a sports team just because you happened to grow up in Chicago or St. Louis—only a lot more damaging to the other teams. Drawing lines in the sand and asserting the dominance of one's own territory are such deeply meaningful actions for so many people, I sometimes think these are hard-wired brain functions. I guess I haven't got the gene.
Throughout my life, I've been exposed to two types of patriotism, and I know which one I prefer. The first and least attractive stype is nationalistic: my country is the best, and everyone else can go to hell. This is the patriotism that far-right radio personalities spew 24/7. I sometimes think they do it to inoculate themselves against the charge of hating America, because every declaration of 100 percent red-white-and-blue loyalty is quickly followed by a blistering critique denouncing all those who vote with the other party or worship at the other church, synagogue, temple, mosque or library. This is leavened with scorn and ridicule directed at other nations and peoples. Patriotism or prejudice? Tough love or hypocrisy? You call it, but it reminds me of those familiar folks who adore Humanity in the abstract but never find an individual specimen of the category who lives up to their standards.
The other type of patriotism moves me greatly: in a U.S. context, this is loyalty to the fundamental principles of democracy asserted in our founding documents and made more real with successive amendments rejecting slavery and enabling female suffrage. Patriots of this stripe glimpse here and there in our history the compassion, fairness and commitment of which human communities are capable. They keep their eyes trained steadily on evoking these potentials, even under conditions as troubled and troubling as today's. They believe we have a choice, that it is always within our capability to choose liberty, community and equality. In the civic arena, they express the profound spiritual truth that all of us are connected and in every heart beats the same sacred rhythm: holy, holy, holy.
Let me tell you a little story. Dear friends of mine are close with Robert Meerpol, a very nice man whose parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed by the U.S. government in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. For the last decade, Robbie has directed the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which was created "to provide for the educational and emotional needs of children whose parents have suffered because of their progressive activities and who, therefore, are no longer able to provide fully for their children."
Long ago, one warm summer night on a visit to New York, all of us took a cruise on one of the boats that makes a stately circuit of Manhattan. We enjoyed the conviviality of sipping wine and chatting while the heavy, wet breeze caressed our faces and the sights of the city passed by. At the far end of the island, our boat came very close to the Statue of Liberty. Robbie Meerpol has his mother's face. The mental juxtaposition startled me: Lady Liberty and Ethel Rosenberg neat little hat and buttoned-up winter coat. What must he be thinking, I wondered, as we float past this symbol of liberty in a nation that made a human sacrifice of his parents?
Robbie gazed at the statue, then turned toward me, smiling, eyes glistening. "Isn't she beautiful?" he said, absolutely sincere.
Last week the New York Times ran an article describing how Robbie and his brother had responded to the information, confirmed at long last, that his father had indeed been involved in passing information to the Soviets (though not the "secret of the atom bomb" for which they were executed). Here's a link to the Meerpol brothers' response in their own words. To me, they express the best kind of loyalty: love of those they hold dear, unwillingness to condemn without evidence, absolute openness to what has been proven, acceptance of even the hardest truths, unshakeable commitment to both caring and justice.
Over time, the patriotism that has impressed me most is the love of country voiced by many people who work the land in rural America. When they speak of loving their country, they are naming known ground, a patch of earth they have walked and tilled and coaxed into the collaboration that brings forth food. I have a friend whose family raises grass-finished beef on a ranch in northern California. She and many people like her—motivated by the deepest love and the clearest sight—have proposed a "Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture," calling for a safe and healthy food system, a goal that is desperately needed and well within our grasp.
This is a far cry from the America-firsters who loudly proclaim our right to stock school cafeterias with unhealthy food produced via chemical-intensive methods and unfair labor practices. That is a "patriotism" that considers the health and well-being of the generations a kind of collateral damage, the necessary cost of an orgy of over-consumption which somehow says "America" to them. It feels more like a spiritual disorder than a political philosophy.
Recently, I saw a wonderful film on DVD, a thrillingly patriotic film. The Chicago Ten is beautifully made, folding together two very different elements. Much of the film consists of animation, mostly depicting courtroom scenes voiced by actors reading from court transcripts in the voices of Abby Hoffman, William Kunstler, Bobby Seale, Judge Julius Hoffman and others who took park in that show-trial. This is interspersed with news footage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the protests mounted by activists to call the nation's attention to the need for peace and justice, for an end to the Vietnam War.
Forty years on, it is shocking almost beyond bearing to be reminded of the mockery the Chicago courts made of justice, the brutal lengths to which the police went to suppress free speech and freedom of assembly, the unsupportable verdicts intended to send everyone involved to prison, even the defense attorneys (all the verdicts were eventually overturned). But it was also remarkably uplifting to see how deeply these activists believed in the fundamental principles of democracy, how often they spoke the language of the founders, how absolute their belief in the rights of citizenship even as those rights were being flouted by everyone in authority. The image of Bobby Seale bound and gagged at the defense table, struggling to assert his legal rights, will stay with me for a very long time.
For me, the dividing line between true devotion to country and a poisonous chauvinism masquerading as patriotism is this: do you love and respect the ideals of freedom enough to hold the powers-that-be—to hold all of us—to them? Enough to oppose what is toxic to liberty, community and equality? Enough to expose the scoundrels who clothe their contempt in the flag? Then you are a patriot in the best sense of that word.