5 Patriot Dreams

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Last week was the election. This week was Veteran’s Day. I served over a decade in the Army and spent 19 months in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. My son and son-in-law both currently serve in the armed forces. Since leaving the military and moving here to Chapel Hill I have served in a wide variety of positions all devoted to making the community better. Service above self, service to community and country, are not just things I have done. It is very much a part of who I am.

I believe deeply in the promise of America. And, as hard as it can be sometimes when you consider both our past and our present, I love this country ferociously. Maybe too much. Enough that it breaks my heart. It sometimes feels corny. And I even roll my eyes a little when I say it. But deep down I know that it is true with every fiber of my being:

I am a patriot.

And for years now I have had to grapple with what that means. What does it mean to love a country that sends you to war? What does it mean when they send you to war for less than noble reasons? Most of which were - at the very least - exaggerated? What does it mean to give up years of your life and the very best version of yourself to a country that was built by slaves, on land stolen from native tribes? How do you love a country that is so quick to embrace authoritarianism, so reluctant to tear down systemic barriers to equity, and so comfortable with suffering at home and abroad?

This week I will be trying to answer some of these questions. I am sharing my thoughts on what patriotism is, and what it isn’t. I will be trying to think through the things that are important about this place, and our journey together as Americans.

I am calling this week’s 5 Things 5 Patriot Dreams. The name comes from the 4th stanza of America the Beautiful which opens with “O beautiful for patriot dream / which sees beyond the years.” So much of the promise of this place - so much about what it means to be a patriot and love America - requires that we look beyond the years. We must look into our past. We must look to our future. Patriotism demands that we see both what our country is and what it can be. It is an invitation to action. It is a shared burden.

As we move fitfully beyond the election and into a new season of life in our country, I encourage you to think more about what America means to you. Like most things worth thinking about, this is complicated. And more than one thing can be true at once.

Let’s get started.

Patriot Dream #1

Patriotism is inclusive.

I believe that words have power. One of the reasons that they have power is because they are used to define ideas and concepts. One of the most striking examples of this is the way that some product names become generic. When you ask for a Kleenex, you mean a paper tissue. When you “Google” something, you mean you are doing an internet search. If you are in a diner in the south and ask for a coke, the waitress will definitely ask you what kind of coke you want. Because here “coke” is generic for soda.

One of the things that has been horrific for me personally the last few years is to watch how the word “patriot” has been corrupted. It has come to be shorthand for a kind of xenophobic, angry, and exclusionary America that seems, to me at least, to bear little resemblance to the “Great American Melting Pot” that I learned about watching Schoolhouse Rock.

For me, patriotism is inclusive. America is not one of us. It is all of us. Our national motto is E Pluribus Unum - out of many, one. While it became our official national motto in 1956, the phrase appeared on the national seal which was approved in 1782. This idea - that our diversity is our strength - has been with us as a nation from the very beginning of our existence.

Different perspectives, different backgrounds, and different ideas about the world help us to shape better outcomes. When we are at our best, we are all working together to solve complex challenges. We may do it imperfectly, but it takes all of us. It took a national effort to get us to the moon. It took far too long for us to collectively acknowledge the pivotal role of Katherine Johnson and the women of Hidden Figures fame, but it took their presence, their brilliance, as part of the team helped make the moon landing happen. (And for the record, it happened.)

We are at our worst when we are about excluding and limiting what it means to be an American. Eugene McCarthy and the red scare filled a whole nation full of fear, almost killed innovation in the most successful American industry ever (Hollywood) and generally left the whole country divided and in fear. While it may have been called a “patriot” movement, it was anything but.

Patriotism doesn’t mean family separation or kids in cages. It doesn’t mean picking and choosing who gets to be a “real” American. Do you live in America, or were you born here and now live abroad? Then you are an American. That’s it. That’s the criteria. You may have documents. You may not. You may speak English. You may not. But if you live here and work here and build here and love your family here and are part of a community here then you are an American.

And anyone who tells you what an American is by first listing all of the things that it isn’t, or starts to speak about what is authentic, or demands any kind of linguistic or ethnic purity test is not being patriotic. They’re just being an asshole.

Because patriotism is about ALL of us. Not one of us. It is about finding ways to come together with people who look, feel, think, and speak differently. Because when we do that we learn, we grow, and we become the very best version of ourselves.

And THAT is patriotism.

Patriot Dream #2

Patriotism is liberty and justice for ALL.

One of the great promises of America is that it is a place where all people are created equal. The rhetoric of equality permeates our founding documents and has always been a part of the story we tell ourselves. Come to America where you can be free, where you can find success no matter who your parents are or where you come from. Come to America where there are no kings, no nobility, where you can take your own future in your hands and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Yeah.

The rhetoric is lofty. It has been from the first. And that lofty rhetoric was created primarily by white men who either owned slaves or profited handsomely from the trade in human beings. Yep. Even Alexander Hamilton. These same men saw women as undeserving of the right to vote, own property, or even have their own bank account. They were men who wrote their poetic words and then immediately set about the very prosaic work of writing laws and building systems that would create advantages for the people who looked like them.

The founder’s vision of liberty and justice for all ran headlong into human nature and the reality that many of us are more interested in maintaining what we have then ensuring equality for everyone.

Liberty and justice for all has always been more of a promise than a reality in America. Our talk has always been bigger than our accomplishment. This is true of many of the promises of America.

And.

Patriotism isn’t just about loving the country you have. It is about believing in the promise of what your country can be. Love of country - like all love - is active. It requires work. You aren’t born the best version of yourself. Countries aren’t either. Promises made mean little unless everyone works collectively to ensure that they become promises kept. When we are at our best in America, we work together to bring into alignment the reality we see and the story we tell ourselves.

That does not mean that all of us agree, or that all of us do the work. There are always those who resist the alignment of vision and action. They are small and fearful. And that’s okay. We can get them healthcare too. Because it is the right thing. And the right thing is the right thing, whether everyone sees it or not. Truth does not require assent.

If your vision of America involves keeping people down, if America only works for you if you are the only one working then that isn’t patriotism. It’s selfishness. Bigotry even. Patriotism is about lifting each other up. It is about fighting for liberty and justice for ALL. Patriotism is Seneca Falls and Stonewall and Selma. It is Bryan Stephenson and Stacey Abrams and John Lewis.

Patriotism is about holding America to it’s promise, and making the rhetoric of equality a lived reality for all our people.

Patriot Dream #3

Patriotism is kind of like parenting.

One of the central challenges of parenting is balancing the need to protect your kids with their need to learn how to navigate the world. And the world is tough. How much freedom do you give them, especially knowing that they may make mistakes that hurt? 

For me as a parent it comes down to balancing freedom and responsibility. The more responsibility our kids show, the more freedom they get. We aren’t big on things like curfew or screen time limits unless there is a demonstrated lack of capacity to manage those things. If they do the right thing and meet their obligations to themselves and the family, then they have the freedom to do just about anything they want. Then they deal with the natural consequences of their choices.

There is a lot of rhetoric about freedom these days. The rhetoric has become supercharged during the pandemic, during which we have heard all manner of people declaring mask mandates and temporary business closures to be an “assault” on personal freedom.

This way of understanding freedom is both self-serving and limited. It is self-serving because it centers freedom in what individuals might want to do or not do. It is limited because it focuses on individual freedom, and not individual freedom in a collective context.

Yes. Being an American means that we are endowed with inalienable rights, including the right to pursue happiness. That comes with fairly wide latitude to make our own choices. However, this freedom of choice has never been understood to be absolute. There are always limits to the choices we can make.

Just as we as parents have to help our kids balance freedom and responsibility, so must our body politic. The most famous example is that you can’t scream “FIRE” in a crowded movie theater. Your freedom of expression does not extend to speech that may cause real people actual harm. You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) make unhinged, baseless claims of voter fraud that undermine entire elections, for example. And while these formal (and informal) limits to freedom are often tested, they remain in place for the benefit of all of us. That’s why testing the limits is so dangerous. It puts ALL of us at risk. Even those doing the testing.

Because while we are free, we still have a responsibility to others. There is no law, rule, or regulation that prevents me from wearing an extra small speedo swimsuit to the pool. However, I do have a fundamental obligation to those who might be at the pool and see that to NOT do it.

Those who would suggest that wearing a mask imposes on their freedom have lost sight of their responsibility to others. I think it’s also interesting to note that many of those who have been most vocal about “government overreach” and “bodily autonomy” are the same folks who are exceedingly comfortable with the government regulating every aspect of women’s reproduction. Choice is only important sometimes it seems.

If your idea of patriotism starts with a list of individual rights, then wonderful. You are on the right track. If you fail to understand that all those individual rights come with counterbalancing collective responsibilities then you only have half the answer.

And you don’t get partial credit for patriotism.

Patriot Dream #4

Patriotism is future tense.

There is much to be admired in American history. At our best, we have shown the world an example of the very best a democracy can be. There is also much in our history that is lamentable. Even the most generous reading of our past must acknowledge the very real history of suppression, oppression, and slavery that helped build many of our successes. You don’t have to dig very deeply into the history of our country - or its present - to see things you would rather not see.

Heroic references to our country’s history have always struck me as a particularly odd form of performative patriotism, especially when the past being celebrated is so problematic. When I hear people say “make America great again” I can’t help but wonder when the speaker thinks that America was great, and what the country may have looked like then. This curiosity only grows when the call to “MAGA” is accompanied by a Confederate flag. Is THAT when you think America was great? When traitorous soldiers gathered under that flag to literally attack America?

It seems like an unusual way to show how much you love this place.

Someone once told me that nostalgia was the lowest form of conversation. I don’t know that I would go that far. Nostalgia and memory have their place. We all have gauzy, half-remembered happy memories of the places and moments of our past. Maybe it is that one summer job, or a first kiss. It might be a holiday or that one family vacation. It can be wonderful to let your mind float on these memories.

The challenge of nostalgia is that our memory smoothes rough edges, it papers over imperfections, and it conveniently omits the difficult details that challenge our narrative.

Everyone remembers Disneyland. No one remembers the lines. Or the heat. Or the shitty, overpriced food.

So it is with our memory of America too. We often look to a past where things were peaceful and predictable. Where there were leaders who could be trusted to do the right thing and put country above self.

The hard truth - the reality - is that it has always been like this. It has always been rough and ugly and messy. The American ideal has always been more promise than actuality.

We all wish our past looked like the musical Hamilton. We want look past the fact that Hamilton owned slaves.

Patriotism is future tense. It is about celebrating, loving, and hoping for what this country CAN be. America is a fixer upper with a rough history, but boundless potential.

If your patriotism is focused on the past, and if your vision for the future centers on rolling back the clock to some imagined past greatness, then it’s not patriotism. It’s nostalgia. And nostalgia is the lowest form of conversation.

Patriotism is about what can be. Not what was.

Patriot Dream #5

Patriotism is renewable.

I have to tell y’all. This week has been hard for me.

I am a worrier by nature. I deal with PTSD induced anxiety. I am a parent of 5. Oh, and I am a writer, which is pretty much the professional expression of anxiety. There really isn’t a single moment of the day when I am not worried about something.

Because of my natural inclination toward worry I knew that the two months between Trump’s defeat and Biden’s inauguration would be challenging. I knew that Trump and the right wing media ecosystem that amplifies and feeds him had laid the groundwork to question any Trump loss, to brand Biden illegitimate, and otherwise continue the assault on reality that began the moment that Trump descended his golden escalator and told us that Mexico was sending rapists.

Despite knowing that all this was possible, even inevitable, it is still deeply upsetting to live through it. It is a scary time for the country. My (decidedly non-expert) sense is that we will get through all this. But the hard truth is that we are having to ask the question about whether or not we will ever see a President Biden. The fact that it is even a question is a terrible indictment of where we are as a country.

I worry. I shouldn’t have to. I have enough of my own shit.

One of my favorite quotes is often misattributed to Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t Jefferson who said it. It was James Jackson, a fiery Georgia lawyer who represented that state at the 1st Constitutional Congress, and later the House and Senate. He would end his political career as governor of Georgia. Jackson said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

To keep America free - hell, to keep it barely functional - requires our constant attention.

It has been raining here the last few days. Whenever it rains I always think of our last house. We lived on Tinkerbell Road (really) and our house flooded. All the time. It flooded the first time a few years after we moved in, during a record breaking downpour in Chapel Hill. What we would discover a few years later is that this initial flood cracked our foundation. From then on, every time it rained, water would seep in and up. Even the tiniest amount of rain would cause our lower level to flood. The more rain, the worse it would be.

When rain was in the forecast, we would prepare. We would pre-position towels, even stacking them on the floor where we thought the rain might come. We would get buckets, pots and pans. When the rain came and the water rose we would all work together: bailing water, mopping floors, moving stuff out of harm's way and praying that the rain would end. Keeping the house relatively dry was hard work. And it required eternal vigilance.

It was exhausting and it was scary. We never had time to enjoy the sound of the rain tickling the leaves. We never got to enjoy the coolness rain brings on a warm day, or the feeling of clean. Our need for vigilance robbed us of our ability to enjoy the rain.

The work required to maintain democracy is harrowing. It is never ending. I had conversations with a half-dozen friends last week when the race was called for Biden. Every single one said that they felt like they could only enjoy the feeling for a moment.

Then it was time to get back to work.

The challenges of America - like the rain at our old house - are relentless. They require constant vigilance, our never ending attention. I don't know what kind of norm-breaking, reckless, dangerous, deluded, anti-democratic, hateful shenanigans that Trump will engage in over the next couple of months. And I don't know what further damage will be done when there has already been so much. And that scares me.

What I DO know is that we will all be called to bear witness, to be accountable, and to resist authoritarianism. We will be asked to again stand for what America can be, in the face of a man and a movement which is in so many ways the embodiment of America at its worst.

The good news - the hope - is that patriotism is renewable. It may take a beating, but patriotism gets up and fights for the future. Patriotism does the Ghost Dance while the cavalry watches. Patriotism refuses to get up from the lunch counter or give up its seat on the bus. Patriotism is looking at the police making one more early morning raid on the Stonewall Inn - the one place in the world where you are free to be yourself - and saying, "You know what? Fuck that." Patriotism says Black Lives Matter and love is love and no person is illegal and my body, my choice.

There is nothing patriotic about stoking anger and fear. There is nothing patriotic about making people feel hopeless and powerless. This is America. Here EVERYONE should feel hope. EVERYONE should be able to own the power of their voice. Making people afraid is not love of country. It is love of power. It is love of self. You are just using the flag as a way to cover your grift.

True patriotism is hopeful. It lifts people up. It points the way to our best selves, individually and collectively. It challenges us to live the ideals we proclaim.

Patriotism is renewable. We can find it with each other. FOR each other. IN each other.

There have always been, and will forever be, demagogues who want to keep us cowed and afraid, who want us to doomscroll and worry and live in constant fear. People are easier to control when they are afraid.

In the face of fear, hope becomes a revolutionary act. Hope builds a bridge to the future.

Look y'all. There is a lot to be afraid of right now. And it is okay to feel fear. That’s human. It's real. Shit is scary.

And.

Take heart. Believe in one another. Believe in the promise of what this place can be when we work together and hold it accountable.

Grab a bucket. Pick up a mop. We have a lot of water to dry.

It's a good thing that patriotism is renewable.

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.

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