Are you a patriot? That is a question that, depending upon where and when you live, can be either the start of an interested and spirited discussion, or an acrimonious argument. Patriotism is generally defined as ‘love of one’s country.’ That sounds simple and basically neutral, but for many it carries such great emotional weight they find it difficult to bear.
Let me start by saying that I do in fact consider myself a patriot. I love my country, warts and all, and have spent 49 years of my life serving it, twenty in uniform and the past twenty-nine doing my best to support and advance its interests around the world as a diplomat. What I am not, though, is one of those ‘love it or leave it’ types who insists that everyone either shares my personal view of how to demonstrate their patriotism or accept being relegated to the status of ‘not a true American.’
I don’t, for instance, agree with Samuel Johnson that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ Every school of thought or organization has its share of scoundrels; but, their presence shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the essential value of the idea or organization. At the same time, even though I’ve served in the military in time of war, I do not regret that ‘I have but one life to give for my country,’ as did Nathan Hale just before he was hung by the British for spying on behalf of the American rebels in the revolutionary war. I ascribe more to the view advanced by General George Patton to the troops in Germany during World War II; “I consider my duty, not to die for my country, but to make the other guy die for his.”
You’re probably thinking at this point that this guy doesn’t know which end is up. He can’t decide whether he thinks the concept of patriotism is a bunch of hooey, or he is a flag waving, jingoistic lover of all things relating to his country. What planet is this dude from? I’m from the planet ‘reality;’ a place where we take things as they are and work with them. I do love my country, but like the members of my family (those related by blood and those related by marriage), I love them dearly, but I also recognize that they have a blemish or two. My country, bless it, has more than a few blemishes; it has an unfortunate history of slavery and subjugation of indigenous people which has never been fully atoned for; women have yet to be accorded all the rights to which they as fully formed humans are entitled; and the gap between rich and poor leaves a lot to be desired. Acknowledging these faults in no way diminishes the love I have for a country that was founded on the basis of dignity of the individual and strong institutions that provide a buffer between the individual and the power of an often heartless state.
Often, in debates with foreign officials who love to criticize the United States for its faults, I have scored major points by acknowledging that their criticisms are correct, but they don’t go far enough. Yes, we have problems; problems aplenty. But, what we have that many other nations lack, is a set of institutions to which an individual can turn for redress when faced with an obdurate bureaucracy. Some of these institutions, such as the courts, are part of the governing structure; others, like the Red Cross or local shelters, are part of a panoply of non-governmental institutions created to fill the gaps of government inaction – either through neglect, low priority, or lack of resources. That, my friends, is my America – land of the almost free and the sometimes brave; land where Barack Obama has amply demonstrated that every boy CAN grow up to be President (and, someday that will apply to every girl as well); a land which has often stumbled as it has interacted with its global neighbors, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes for nefarious reasons. It is my country, right or wrong; and, I will spend the rest of my life trying to see that it is right more than it’s wrong – but, it’s still my country.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial