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Americans shouldn’t shirk their patriotism

We can thank John Adams for the fireworks this time of the year. On July 3, 1776, fresh from the vote approving the Declaration of Independence, he wrote that what he called the “Day of Deliverance” should thereafter be celebrated with, in Adams’s words, “Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations” around the land.

On the following day, the 4th of July, there were indeed some great “shews,” including fireworks and shells exploding over the Boston Common, and ships on the Delaware River at Philadelphia, firing their cannons 13 times, once for each colony. A patriotic ritual was born.

When it comes to American patriotism, though, the rockets’ red glare often yields bombast bursting in air. The 4th of July is a great opportunity to hear some predictable puffed-chest patriotic palaver from unimaginative politicians. And that’s too bad, because that sort of rhetorical patriotism turns off a lot of people – folks both here at home and abroad who think we Americans can get a bit too big for our britches when we start boasting about how great the country is.

Other nations, after all, are likewise filled with patriots. One of the perils of unalloyed patriotism is that it tends to assert American exceptionalism, which invites the inference that any non-American who loves their own country must be deluded, since no nation is as good as ours. And that, in turn, makes it too easy for us to devalue not only views that don’t match American goals, but also the cultures and the lives of patriotic citizens of other lands. Our nation’s history has too many examples of blood spilled in the cause of overzealous patriotism.

So patriotism is tricky. You want to encourage it because love of country inspires civic involvement and care for our fellow citizens. But uncritical patriotism has become an excuse to cling to ideas that don’t match the values that America at its best exemplifies – values like respect and equal opportunity for all people, peace and justice as global objectives.

For a lot of progressive Americans, patriotism is tainted by its use as a bludgeon by those on the political right. It wasn’t always that way; patriotism used to be comfortably nonpartisan. But in the late 1960s, in response to opposition to the Vietnam War, bumper stickers appeared that proclaimed, “My Country, Right or Wrong,” and “America: Love It or Leave It.” The message was clear: Patriots don’t dissent.

So patriotism has become the default display of conservatives, and quite something else among progressives. It’s almost as though the left is embarrassed to admit patriotic feelings — that liberals are too cool to care, or at least to voice their feelings about the country. There’s a sensibility among some on the political left that it’s less honorable to stand for the National Anthem than to take a knee, or inappropriate to honor the nation’s founders rather than focus on their flaws.

But that default by the left leaves conservatives free to corner the market on patriotism. The reality is that for all its flaws, our nation deserves our deep respect.

On its best days, America has stood for freedom and justice around the world and at home, stepping forward to fight oppression, responding to the call in our founding documents to honor the human drive for liberty. We have indeed fallen far short of our stated goal of equality for all under the law, but even our inadequate achievement has been unparalleled in history, and a beacon for the world.

Patriotism is everybody’s to claim – if by “patriotism” we mean a great celebration of what’s admirable about America alongside a willingness to admit that we haven’t achieved what we have long considered true American ideals. Active patriotism requires work toward realizing those ideals, and that is squarely the agenda of American progressives.

It’s not at all the same as rigid advocacy for the way things have been, nor allegiance to partisan throwbacks. It’s joining with those who share your country, whether they’re your political friends or not, to help us do better.

That’s a part of American character. Alexis deTocqueville noted it during his 1831 visit. “The greatness of America,” he wrote, “lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Isn’t that still who we are, almost two centuries later? If so, it is worth celebrating. I might suggest fireworks and parades — along with a renewed commitment to struggle for the benefits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. That’s what a great country ought to do, and that’s what America is. Happy Independence Day, all.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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