June 28, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

Another Fourth of July is upon us and my thoughts turn to patriotism. 

In the past I’ve waxed and waned in my attitude toward this so-called civic virtue.  It seems to me there are two kinds.

The first, and most legitimate, is the sentiment of attachment to place and people that developes throughout life.  It emerges naturally, like deep friendship, love of one’s spouse, and all the joys of living the kind of life one finds fulfilling.  You grow up in a community, find comfort in its places, its people.  There is a place for you, all things being equal.  This is where you live and the living creates bonds and attachments.  They coalesce into a vague yet deeply-felt satisfaction and sense of Home. 

You would defend this feeling and, by extension, this place.  You would work to make it better.  You would use it as a base upon which to build yourself and family. 

During the Civil War it became clear that not everyone shared the same definition of “country.”  Those in the South defended their country–which meant, to them, their state.  Robert E. Lee, when offered command of the entire Union Army, refused, declaring that he would remain loyal to his country–Virginia.  (He later turned down Jefferson Davis for command of the entire Confederate Army for the same reasons.)

A lot of southerners fought the Union who were not defenders of slavery.  In fact, quite a few hated slavery.  But they fought the Union to defend their country, saying that they continued to fight because “you’re down here…and you shouldn’t be.”

That sort of patriotism is an organic thing, growing out of a sense of place and familiarity.  Like generosity, it follows its own dictates and makes its own choices how best to express itself.  As one matures, presumably, what threatens such sentiment becomes more and more specific and direct–ideas won’t do it, only a foreign soldier with a gun in your face will.  A cosmopolitan view reduces patriotism to a base sentiment that allows one to draw a line–a very personal line–about what constitutes transgression.  And it is personal.  It yields to law.  It yields to reason.

The other kind is the sort that drives political rhetoric.  The kind that produces anti-desecration of the flag legislation.  The kind that seeks to define patriotism and then, definition in hand, seeks to exclude anyone who doesn’t agree.  This kind of patriotism is a perversion.  It’s forcibly wedded to nationalism, which is one of the great perversions of the 20th century.  It assumes there are people constitutionally suited to being citizens–and those who aren’t–and allows for a culling mentality that goes forth and molds.

I have no use for this kind of so-called patriotism.  It’s the kind of patriotism that comes with a lapel pin of the flag and a strident political opinion drawn like a weapon on social occasions.  It’s the kind of patriotism that confuses our country with its employees and ridicules anyone who would criticize those employees for acting stupidly or arrogantly or maliciously.  It’s the kind of patriotism that disallows any other standard of decision-making outside of Us and Them.  It’s the kind of ugly bigotry that pastes bumper stickers on vehicles claiming “America: Love It Or Leave” without bothering to realize that it’s not America that is unloved.  It’s the kind of patriotism that intrudes into every kind of social decision-making by making lists of what is acceptable and what is not.  It’s social Darwinism colored by the national flag.  It’s the kind that lobotomizes those in its grip and makes them incapable of understanding what dissent actually is.

But worse still, it’s the kind that requires a Leader.  The blind loyalty of those who would follow a leader who strikes just the right kind of jingoistic chord is the blindness of those who cannot understand that principle and concept stand outside of any given individual, even while they inform us all.  So we have people like Ollie North, who could not grasp that his duty to the Idea of America, through the Constitution, was far more important than his duty to Ronald Reagan.

The Fourth of July is upon us and it behooves us to remember that the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence and signed it and then went to war because of it were people who knew the difference between principle and princes and declared that no leader could dictate their sentiment.  Their patriotism was to an idea of community and place and to a concept of humanity free of the offensive, transgressive effort of conformity to nationalist litmus tests.  They were people who would see this all torn down before agreeing that something as ephemeral and frangible as a symbol–the flag–be given privileged protection over and above the right of anyone to use that symbol any way they chose.

Have a happy Fourth.


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Category: American Culture, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I just returned from spending a week in Texas, where I saw a level of patriotism just as you described- a nationalistic level of intense pride that didn't really gell with Patriotism at all. The fact that Texas flies its flag at the same height as the US flag, and the fact that children in Texas recite a pledge of alliegance to their state, not their country, shows a level of animosity and separation from the US that comes from extreme pride. I don't like extreme national pride, either, but the state-pride found in Texas struck me as so unusual that I found it noteworthy.

    I enjoy your "spin" on the Fourth of July. Conservatives love to use "Unpatriotic" and "Unamerican" as unsubstantiated attacks. They don't understand, of course, that we "Unamericans" stand for ideals more in the vein of this country's origins than they do. Or do they just ignore the fact? Have they all misread the Constitution, The Declaration of Independence? I don't know.

  2. Sans says:

    "The fact that Texas flies its flag at the same height as the US flag, and the fact that children in Texas recite a pledge of alliegance to their state, not their country, shows a level of animosity and separation from the US that comes from extreme pride. "

    The reason the Texas flag is flown at the same height as the US flag is because Texs is the only state that fought for it's own independence.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    Are you referring to the land grab that severed it from Mexico and made martyrs out of a few opportunists? I think, however, Rhode Island might take exception to being displaced from the first "colony that eventually became a state" to declare and fight for its independence.

    Sam Houston, btw, wanted from the get-go to obtain statehood for Texas because he saw it as the only way to keep Texas American. Its two year existence as an independent republic was disastrous economically.

  4. The Dude says:

    Actually, Texas lasted for a decade as an independent Republic, from 1836 to 1845. It had its own military forces, its own currency (for better or for worse) and a creation story that no other state can relate to or share in. For that reason, Texans find no shame in their alienation from the rest of America, and I don't blame them for their pride.

  5. Jason Rayl says:


    Mea culpa. You're right, ten years. Still, their chief problem was lack of a viable internal economy. And whether the like to characterize it as such or not, they stole it from Mexico. A very American enterprise.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    I recently stumbled across the text of the speech Frederick Douglas gave on the Fourth of July, 1852. It was a different kind of patriotism than we display today. No thoughtless firecrackers and sparklers for Douglass. Instead he spoke harsh truth:

    What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

    Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

    An abbreviated version of this famous speech is here.

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