Patriot Games

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The Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. All that’s left are flags still flapping in the breeze, the detritus of fireworks on summer lawns, and leftover hotdogs, hamburgers and beer in the fridge. The sounds of high school bands as they marched proudly in parades down main streets of American towns are a distant echo in our ears.

I have been left pondering the idea of patriotism. The symbols and anthems of American pride can bring tears to my eyes. The sight of veterans marching or waving from parade floats gives me a sense of gratitude for my freedom and their sacrifice. Yet the celebrations of Independence Day are just a tiny part of what it means to be a patriot.

During the 2008 presidential election, there was a rumor circulating that then-Senator Barack Obama refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel. Although the rumor was untrue, I remember thinking, So what? Does wearing a flag pin make someone patriotic? What about waving the flag or singing “The Star Spangled Banner”? We equate the symbolism with the reality at our own peril.

A perfect example of the disconnect between these gestures and reality is in the treatment our active duty soldiers and veterans have received over the years. During the Iraq War, bumper stickers with the slogan “Support Our Troops” started appearing on vehicles across the country.  Yet at the same time, reports came out that the armed forces were given insufficient armor and outdated equipment with which to go into battle.  Similarly, since at least the Vietnam War, veterans’ medical, financial and psychological needs have been underserved. I don’t know about you, but I would rather have adequate protection in battle and appropriate medical attention when needed than all the flag-waving, yellow ribbons and bumper stickers in the country.

I have also noticed that Americans who voice any criticism of our country are viewed as traitors. A Facebook friend posted an article declaring that such songs as “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen and “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp are anti-American because they are critical of the Vietnam War and of poverty and racism in the United States. Yet dissent is one of our most cherished rights as Americans. Only by looking at ourselves with a critical eye can we make our country better.

I am not advocating disrespect. I would never endorse flag-burning or using expletives to refer to the President of the United States – even though these actions are protected by the First Amendment. But true patriotism means caring about Americans and trying to make life better for everyone in our cherished republic. 

Actions speak louder than words and symbols, and it is our actions by which we should be judged. For me this means keeping myself informed, voting for public officials, and advocating for freedom and justice. Flag waving optional.

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