May 18th, 2023

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” – Samuel Johnson

“I believe in America.” – first words from the movie, The Godfather

In a recent survey funded by the Wall Street Journal, 38% in 2023 said “patriotism” is very important. This is in comparison with 70% in 1998 and 61% in 2019. On the surface this decline would seem to be alarming, but is it?

One definition of “patriotism” is: the quality of being patriotic; devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country.

The first part of that definition explains nothing. The second part is meaningful, but only to a certain extent. It quickly raises some questions. For instance, what is “devotion” to one’s country? How does a citizen “vigorously support” his or her country? There can be a variety of answers to these questions, some of them conflicting. I would argue that there are as many answers as there are Americans.

Patriotism has to be more than just a feeling, and it needs to be more than just empty words. How does a person demonstrate that they are a patriot? How would another individual recognize that a person is patriotic? What is the litmus test in the real world?

I expect that, generally speaking, most Americans would describe members of the U.S. military as being patriotic. After all, military personnel are putting their livers on the line to defend the United States. It would seem that soldiers are by definition “vigorously supporting” their country.

Not everyone agrees with that. I know pacifists who would argue that soldiers are in fact vigorously supporting the imperialist policies of the U.S. government, and not doing their country any real good. Some of the peace activists I know would not consider service members to be patriots at all. They see them as misguided people who are pawns of the military-industrial complex. The pacifist viewpoint is clearly a minority opinion, but it exists. I only mention it because, as far as I can see, there is no consensus in the United States regarding who is a patriot, or even what the word means.

Let me present another scenario. Before COVID struck, I used to teach a citizenship class to immigrants holding green cards. When I would tell people that I was instructing a class of soon-to-be Americans, they would sometimes remark that I was being very patriotic. During the same time period, I was also driving undocumented migrants to their court appearances. I was escorting people who were not in the United States legally to court houses to lessen the chance that I.C.E. would snatch them up. When I told people about doing that, they often didn’t view me as being patriotic at all. In both cases, I was volunteering to help immigrants in our country. However, my two sets of actions elicited very different reactions from my fellow citizens.

The word “patriotism” has been used and abused, especially since 9/11. Often patriotism has been equated to jingoism and xenophobia. As America has become more politically polarized, the concept of patriotism has been twisted to justify extreme policies and actions. Were the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers patriots on January 6th? Were the members of BLM who rioted in various cities patriots? Who are the real patriots now?

Maybe only 38% of the population believes that patriotism is very important because we don’t even know what it means anymore.

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