Patriotism

All through elementary school we began our day by reciting the pledge of allegiance. I recall standing, facing the flag, hand over my heart, earnestly saying the words with my classmates.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,

And to the Republic for which it stands,

One nation, under God, indivisible,

With liberty and justice for all.”

I said those words with pride. As I got older, it became a rote exercise. By the time I was in high school, in the early 1970s, it was hard to hear the words over the general din in homeroom.

The process of it losing my attention, and apparently my classmates’, too, might have been a function of our age. Or it may have reflected something else – a change in our country as a whole.

Two things made me think about this. First was the controversy over Megan Rapinoe, the women’s soccer player who got called out by President Trump for not singing the national anthem. The second thing is that the 4th of July is upon us, a good time to reflect on patriotism.

Over the years a lot of athletes have stirred controversy by their behavior during the national anthem. The first roiling I recall was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. That touched off a firestorm. I was only 8 at the time, but I remember being upset by it. I think what disturbed me most was that it was detracting from the competition. I loved the Olympics, I loved it when Americans won an event, and I felt pride hearing our anthem played in the stadium. It reinforced that we were the good guys – and it was the Cold War, after all. I didn’t want Carlos and Smith to upset the applecart.

But, even at 8 years of age, I stopped to think about why they were doing it. They were making a statement and I felt it was important to try to understand it. They were calling attention to the fact that Black Americans were not being treated equally at home. It was hard to deny that truth. The athletes felt they had to use their platform literally and figuratively. They paid for their actions – they were kicked out of the Olympic Village and banned from the rest of the games. They also received death threats. One can only imagine what might have happened if this occurred in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and social media frenzies.

The idea that our country was falling short of its foundational values became more evident to me as the years rolled on. The Vietnam War and Watergate took their toll on my faith; they were stains on our nation’s history.

I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t feel pride in being an American – I did and do. But it is tempered by an awareness that we haven’t always met our own standards. We need people like Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick to keep us accountable. They raise legitimate issues. We can disagree with them. We can think that they are wrong. But they should be seen and heard.

I came to my own conclusion about the pledge of allegiance. When I became a school board member in 1997, I took an oath of office. It was simple and said the following:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of office of school board member of the Guilderland Central School District according to the best of my ability.”

I recited and signed that statement with honor and seriousness of purpose. I thought about my responsibility to the U.S. and New York State Constitutions, and to the students and members of my school community. I kept that in the forefront of my mind during the nine years I served. But, I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance.

It was our practice, and I believe it is the custom of most school boards, to begin meetings with the pledge. I stood up out of respect for my colleagues and the audience, but I didn’t put my hand over my heart, and I didn’t repeat the words. I had two reasons. First, I felt uncomfortable pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is a symbol. I wouldn’t desecrate it, but I didn’t want to take an oath to it. I think it is beautiful waving against a clear blue sky, but my allegiance isn’t to the flag itself. If the pledge only said, “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America,” that would be fine. I recognize the value of symbols, but we shouldn’t confuse a representation with the actual thing that we venerate. Sometimes I think the flag itself becomes more important than the values it represents.

My second objection was the phrase “under God,” which was added in 1954. I’m not an atheist exactly, I’ll call myself a doubter. Given that I grew up believing that one of the great pillars of our country was the separation of church and state, I don’t think those words belong. So, I simply stopped reciting it.

Funny thing is that for all the years that I didn’t say the pledge, no one noticed! The meetings were televised locally. We were covered by a local reporter. No one ever asked. I wasn’t interested in calling attention to myself, so I didn’t make a point of it. I made a personal choice. I wonder if it had been noticed, if it would have become a “thing.”

I wish people wouldn’t get so angry when celebrities or regular people make these kinds of gestures. Why can’t they be noted, and then people make their own determination as to whether they agree or not. If you don’t like Megan Rapinoe because of her behavior or her values, that’s fine. But we don’t need the vitriol – how did we get to death threats so quickly? We have enough real problems to deal with, we don’t need to dwell on whether someone didn’t sing or if they knelt during the national anthem.

As we celebrate the 4th of July, I hope we think about the values that are the foundation of this country as expressed in that pledge: liberty and justice for all. These are still aspirational goals that I readily embrace and work towards achieving. We can and should enjoy the symbols: our majestic flag, the fireworks, the patriotic music, the hot dogs and beer. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

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A house in my neighborhood – ready to celebrate the Fourth of July

10 thoughts on “Patriotism

  1. For me personally, patriotism is most apparent during two circumstances in my life.
    The first is voting. Being acutely aware of the lack of democracies in the world, I am always very proud to be an American when I go to the polls. I put a lot of thought and research into my voting choices. Therefore, I was deeply upset when I realized that my vote most likely was not counted in the 2000 presidential election because I live in Florida. I was equally as emotionally invested after the 2008 presidential election when I was so proud of my country and fellow citizens for electing an African-American president. The first time I ever felt deep shame for my country was after the 2012 presidential election.
    The second area of my life that underscores my feelings of patriotism is overseas travel. I have always been fascinated by other cultures and the way citizens of different countries live. As a result, I never took tours and always planned my own adventures in order to be exposed to as much of the local culture as possible. Of many stories I could relate here, I’ll only tell two – from the superficial to the more serious. The superficial occured in a New Zealand supermarket, which only had two or three varieties of any given product. This made me feel grateful to live in such a wealthy country which afforded me infinite choices. The more serious incident happened when I was invited to dinner in a traditional middle class home in New Delhi. The mother of the family was in the kitchen when I arrived. When I was introduced to her, I offered to help her with the meal preparation. I was hustled away from the kitchen by the son who had invited me (I later found out that because I am not a Hindu, I am considered an untouchable, and anything I touched in the kitchen would be tainted and have to be discarded – made me wonder if they threw out the plate, glass, and utensils I did use). The mother served me, the father, and the two sons a delicious meal but ate her own dinner in the kitchen, not with us. When I asked why she wasn’t joining us, I was told that women weren’t allowed to eat with men (again, I was an untouchable so my presence at the table was inconsequential, in fact, the father wouldn’t look at me or speak to me during the entirety of my visit). I remember feeling lucky and proud that I live in a more progressive society which gives greater freedom to women.
    I have many other stories about travel in so many parts of the world which highlight my pride in being American (such as the lunch I had with a Communist Chinese woman who was also traveling in Brussels or the many discussions I had with a professor from the University of Moscow while cruising on the Volga from Moscow to St. Petersburg). Even given the current climate in the country, I still think we are so lucky to live in a land of great opportunity and prosperity.
    Thank you for another provocative blog Linda.

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    1. Laurie, First, thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that voting is something to be valued and taken seriously – especially local votes. Sometimes people think those can be overlooked, but they make a huge impact. People shouldn’t just come out to vote during the presidential cycle. I also think travel is an invaluable way to get perspective on America. We are indeed fortunate in many ways and I do think that our standard of living is something to be proud of. That said, I think income inequality is a threat to our way of life. And, I think if we aren’t vigilant, some of what we value could slip away. Thank you again for contributing to the discussion.

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  2. Just a thought – Patriotism – do you realize the word “riot” is in the middle of the word? Is there a hidden meaning here? Do we riot or revolt against egregious acts and are those actions done under the umbrella of patriotism?

    Patriotism – simple definition: A love of one’s country. How one demonstrates this can be blog unto itself.

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    1. I had not noticed, but it is an interesting observation. I’m not sure that rioting would fall under the umbrella of patriotism, but protest certainly does. If the government we have elected fails to represent the interests and values of the people, it is time to take to the streets (and the voting booth – assuming the integrity of the voting process).

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  3. I remember feeling angry and even confused at those who I felt disrespected our country with protests years ago. But I no longer feel anger towards people who protest against perceived inequalities.
    To the contrary, I think it is patriotic to try to make this country a more perfect union and to put oneself out there and become a potential target in doing so. It is typically selfless and admirable.
    I have heard some say that those protests dishonor those who died defending our freedoms including the right to protest. However, I would point out that those brave people died defending the right to protest, not the right to stifle those freedoms.
    I don’t think it is patriotic to try to make our country less free and less inclusive. In these perilous times, we must defend our democracy from the serious threats it faces.
    Thank you for the excellent and timely blog post.

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  4. A very thought-provoking piece. And one certainly close to all of our hearts. My Dad fought in WWII to preserve the freedom we currently still enjoy. We had very spirited discussions concerning the Nixon Presidency and how the leadership of the country was becoming compromised with the lies and internal machinations that in his view were obstructing Democracy. When Nixon resigned in disgrace rather than face impeachment, and then subsequently pardoned by President Ford, many felt justice had not been served. That he deserved to be tried, convicted and incarcerated for obstruction of justice. My Dad disagreed, saying locking up the POTUS would set a terrible precedent for the country. My takeaway then was in order to feel patriotic, one needed to feel confidence and pride in the country’s leadership. That confidence has waxed and waned over the years, never more so than right now.

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  5. I can’t recall where I heard it, but the expression I’m about to paraphrase has stuck with me of late. It’s something like “You can love your country two ways; first, like a child loves its mother. Second, like an adult. The child thinks it’s mother perfect and infallible and has always been so. The adult recognizes that there’s always room for improvement and that there are elements that could be done away with for the betterment of all.”

    I’m grateful to have won the lottery of being born an American in our family, but I recognize that this country has a long way yet to go.

    Great article!

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