I ask myself how independent, as an individual, I really am on Independence Day. The overwhelming social and cultural pressure on the July 4th holiday is not to be independent or to think independently, but to conform. And that conformity tends to be packaged in a very small box and labeled “patriotic.”
Our word patriot comes from the Greek patriotes, through Latin and medieval French, and meant simply “fellow countryman.” Actually, the Greeks applied the word “patriotes” to barbarians. By the 17th century the word patriot had come to mean “loyal and disinterested supporter of one’s country,” but then lost favor again, being applied to troublemakers by the early 19th century. In the 20th century the word was revived with its current positive connotations, especially in American English.
So, historically the heart of the word patriot is “fellow countryman,” or the people with which you live in a broad community and with which you identify. Based on this fact, a box with the label patriotic should not be a small box, but a very big box, one that includes a commitment to the well-being of all those who live in our country. So a patriot would be one who works tirelessly for good education for all in the country, a decent living wage for all in the country, healthy food and wholesome living conditions for all in the country, programs that promote health, fitness, and emotional well being for all in the country, laws that insure dignity and justice for all and prevent the abuse of power for all in the country, programs that offer a safety net to protect those who struggle to make it on their own, including the elderly, the mentally ill, and those who are broken by circumstances beyond their control. On the other hand, a patriot would also be one who challenges those whose ideas conflict with the truths that the writers of the Declaration of Independence considered “self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A patriot would challenge those who promote the good of only the powerful and rich, or throw up obstacles to accessing the freedom and opportunities that are available, or exclude people from those opportunities based on race, religion, sexual identity, and other differences.
How have we come to believe that patriotism is first and foremost a matter of waving a flag, or spending trillions on the military, or bashing anyone who says otherwise, or blindly promoting the United States over all other countries in the world, regardless of the facts of any situation? We should never minimize the sacrifice of those who have died in conflict for their countrymen. Theirs is often called the “ultimate” sacrifice. Because I am a patriot, their fellow countryman, I am committed not to “my country right or wrong” but to holding our government accountable for the lives of my countrymen, because our government is no less likely than any other government to send them to their deaths for the wrong reasons, to be influenced by greed and the lust for power. By not keeping our government and ourselves accountable for every life in our country, we simply make the abuse of immense power easier.
So on this 4th of July I offer this blog post, and later I will be a patriot by eating with a few fellow countrymen/women and hopefully being thankful for, and re-commiting myself to, not just freedom but opportunity, dignity, and well-being–life and happiness–for all.