The term “patriotism” is often reduced to its lowest pop culture denominator, dividing us into two groups: the folks who chant Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” by bellowing out the refrain and the ones who listen to the lyrics about a working-class boy who comes home from Vietnam to find that he can’t get a job and that he’s got “nowhere to run” and “nowhere to go.” The rousing chorus can too easily eclipse the despair of Springsteen’s lines about a veteran who has ended up “like a dog that’s been beat too much,” living in the “shadow of the penitentiary.”
The iconic cover for Springsteen’s 1984 album shows him posed against the American flag even as his song questions the unwillingness of the government to care for its most vulnerable citizens.
As my former student, Holly Wonneberger, suggests, perhaps the most damaging “unpatriotic” action is “prioritizing the concept of ’country’ over the people who live in it.”
Patriots occupy many categories. As a waist-gunner and radio-man on a B-24 Liberator bomber during World War II, my father was certainly a patriot. As my friend Ray L’Heurex put it, he was one of those who “wrote a check to the U.S. government, payable up to and including one’s life.” Although my dad didn’t pay the highest price, he talked about the boys who did until, at age 84, his nightmares finally stopped. I carry his dog tags with me everywhere.
But my father refused to put an American flag sticker on his car even when everybody was doing it. “I know I’m an American,” he’d say, “I don’t have to prove it to anybody else.” I feel the same way about the flag pins: I understand why people wear them, but since I’m recognizable from 300 feet away as not only an American but as from Brooklyn, I don’t feel the need to announce my nationality. I embody it.
My friend Pamela Santerre makes an important distinction between patriotism and nationalism: “For me, patriotism and nationalism are two separate things. Nationalism is like saying that every member of your family is the best and that any suggestions to the contrary warrant immediate ire. Patriotism is like the love that most of us have for our families. Even though we know they aren’t perfect and could stand to work on a few things for their - and our - benefit, we are loyal to them. But we will continue to push them to grow and better themselves, not because we are ashamed of them, but because we respect and are proud of them.”
Patriotism is about a desire for progress, not a yearning for repetition. It’s about wanting to be better, not just longing for an idea of what we think we once were. While it should be rooted in a knowledge of history, patriotism is more than a sentimental reverence for an idealized and nostalgic vision of what most people never possessed. There’s a fine line between the encouraging and uplifting parts of love of country and the territorial and threatening parts. That fine line can turn into a firing line - but it doesn’t have to.
We need to guard against the worst, most adulterated and shabby versions of nationalism - of what Mark Twain once defined as patriotism “shop-worn product procured second hand.” If we defend, without knowing why, a set of inherited and unexamined platitudes designed to prey on our most base tribal and easily inflamed emotions, we are betraying the principles upon which our country was founded.
Twain said a person calling himself a patriot who cannot explain “just how or when or where he got his opinions” is not doing the brave thing, but “the safe thing, the comfortable thing.” Twain had contempt for those who get their patriotic ideas at “the public trough” and have “no hand in their preparation.” Twain suggests it would be more beneficial for us to develop a “public conscience.”
In other words, we shouldn’t chant “it’s my country, right or wrong” but instead announce “it’s my country and with both pride and fearlessness, I am working every day to make it better, more honest and more just.” And then we should turn up Springsteen.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books.