The True Meaning of Patriotism

By Reed, Lawrence W. | Ideas on Liberty, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The True Meaning of Patriotism


Reed, Lawrence W., Ideas on Liberty


Patriotism these days is like Christmas-lots of people caught up in a festive atmosphere replete with lights and spectacles. We hear reminders about "the true meaning" of Christmas-and we may even mutter a few guilt-ridden words to that effect ourselves-but each of us spends more time and thought in parties, gift-giving, and the other paraphernalia of a secularized holiday than we do deepening our devotion to the true meaning.

So it is with patriotism, especially on Memorial Day in May, Flag Day in June, and Independence Day in July. Walk down Main Street America and ask one citizen after another what patriotism means and with few exceptions, you'll get a passel of the most self-righteous but superficial and often dead-wrong answers. America's Founders, the men and women who gave us reason to be patriotic in the first place, would think we've lost our way if they could see us now.

Since the infamous attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans in near unanimity have been "feeling" patriotic. For most, that sadly suffices to make one a solid patriot. But if I'm right, it's time for Americans to take a refresher course.

Patriotism is not love of country, if by "country" you mean scenery-amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesty, and the like. Almost every country has pretty collections of rocks, water, and stuff that people grow and eat. If that's what patriotism is all about, then Americans have precious little for which we can claim any special or unique love. And surely, patriotism cannot mean giving one's life for a river or a mountain range.

Patriotism is not blind trust in anything our leaders tell us or do. That just replaces some lofty concepts with mindless goose-stepping.

Patriotism is not simply showing up to vote. You need to know a lot more about what motivates a voter before you judge his patriotism. He might be casting a ballot because he just wants something at someone else's expense. Maybe he doesn't much care where the politician he's hiring gets it. Remember Dr. Johnson's wisdom: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

Waving the flag can be an outward sign of patriotism, but let's not cheapen the term by ever suggesting that it's anything more than a sign. And while it's always fitting to mourn those who lost their lives simply because they resided on American soil, that too does not define patriotism.

People in every country and in all times have expressed feelings of something we flippantly call "patriotism," but that just begs the question. What is this thing, anyway? Can it be so cheap and meaningless that a few gestures and feelings make you patriotic?

Not in my book.

I subscribe to a patriotism rooted in ideas that in turn gave birth to a country, but it's the ideas that I think of when I'm feeling patriotic. I'm a patriotic American because I revere the ideas that motivated the Founders and compelled them, in many instances, to put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line.

What ideas? Read the Declaration of Independence again. Or, if you're like most Americans these days, read it for the very first time. It's all there. All men are created equal. They are endowed not by government but by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. …

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