It was 1974, and I was thirteen years old. My father was terminally ill with cancer, and we watched John Wayne movies every Sunday. I am often reminded of his disapproval when I wore a pair of jeans, hand me downs from an older hippie cousin, with an emblem of the American flag on the back pocket. "You’re going to sit on the symbol of our country?” Dad would be appalled to see that it is perfectly acceptable to wear the American flag as a sweatband today, and surprised to see who it was who is wearing it. I never wore those pants again. He didn’t tell me I couldn’t. That was not his way, but his disapproval was enough for me.
I was hardly raised to be a radical liberal, and I would argue that I am not, although I don’t much mind losing that argument, either. Dad, at least initially, would have been on board with criticizing Michelle Obama when she said, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country”. To his credit, he probably would have eventually moved past the knee-jerk patriotism to a more adult version that included the First Amendment. He would wonder just what she what happened in her life to make her feel that way. He would have tried to see he point in context, rather than twist it to support his own beliefs. He would have reminded us all that at age seventeen he had quit high school to enlist so he could protect her right to say what she felt, and that her experience, growing up black in America, was vastly different from ours. He prided himself in being fair. (And Dad, you were.)
Dad was a truck driver. Long hours on the road gave him plenty of time to think, and he was a much freer thinker than any of us ever gave him credit for. Sure he believed that a true woman had long hair (and boys had short hair), but he always tried to see the other guys point of view, and he would fight to the death for the rights of that short-haired gal or that long-haired guy. He had empathy, and he loved the underdog. He was not a “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” conservative. He was far more likely to ask what he could do to help you get up. He loved his family and his country.
I did my best to make my father proud, but in retrospect, I really didn’t have to. It was my birthright. I was his little girl and he would have found reasons to be proud no matter what I did. As we walked home from my eighth grade graduation, the only one he would live to see, he bubbled with pride over all of my accomplishments. “Every time I turned around, they were calling your name.” he beamed. I even got an award for an essay on Patriotism. No one kept a copy of it. Nowadays parents memorialize their kid’s work on coffee cups, or have it matted and framed. Not then. Only one line remains in my memory. It was essentially my thesis. “Patriotism in America is a memory and a hope."
I was born in 1961 in an America that was soon moving from “melting pot” to heaving mass of molten lava. It all came up in the sixties. A country that had gorged itself on images of love of family and all that is good was growing weary of sending its children to war. Patriotism had become a conundrum for many. Yet another generation of young people found their access to the American dream included an unexpected, unavoidable hurdle. People whose ancestors did not come here willingly, whose American dream included riding a bus, having lunch, and using a rest room without event, found it necessary to essentially fight their country for the ability to raise their families. The two things people cherished the most, their family and their country, were at odds. One seemed to call for the sacrifice for the other. It was a bloody mess, to say the least.
After a turbulent decade of eruption, burning, and loss, we entered a cooling off period. Apathy, perhaps. For those of us who were children in the sixties, technically Baby Boomers by name, were in reality more observer than participant. It was a confusing time to be introduced to the world. Out of the chaos and puddles of dissent, rose a nation badly in need of direction. With every household owning a television, those puddles hardened into staunch political ridges. We buried the dead and began a new future in this rugged newly formed landscape. To blame any one person for the polarizing of this nation is to ignore its history.
Those who had opposed Civil Rights Act of 1964 were now members of a different party. The guy wearing the American flag as an article of clothing is now a right–wing conservative, not a liberal “hippie”. The flying of a different flag, the Confederate Stars & Bars, is somehow not seen as un-American. Dad would be thoroughly confused were he to visit this newly formed and divided America. As a man who dressed the same way regardless of the weather 365 days a year, who would he identify with in this newly polarized political landscape where everything around him had changed so drastically? What would he do in a country where you can’t take one from column “A” and one from column “B” unless you are ordering in an Asian restaurant.
My father passed at the beginning of my sophomore year in high school. He looked at us kids standing by the door as the EMT’s wheeled him away, knowing he was looking at his children for the last time. I will never forget the look in his eyes. When I want to know how I am doing, I picture those eyes. I could always tell if he was disappointed or pleased. I think he would be proud of his liberal daughter. Again, I don’t think he could ever do anything less. I am also sure he would still have that same knee-jerk patriotism for his country. But, as a thinking person, I have to wonder how he would have progressed past that. As a parent, he asked us to do our best, if we engaged in anything deserving of shame, we got it, and it didn’t mean he loved us any less. Would he not do the same for his country? After the battles of the decade of “antidisestablishmentarianism”, would he have learned that it is not only okay to question our nation, but to criticize when necessary to preserve it?
I believe he would have. As a parent has a right to correct his child and expect certain standards to be upheld, we, as Americans not only have the right but the duty to hold our nation to our ideals, not it’s ideals, but ours. This nation was not formed so that the unthinking could have a place to reside and lay back while the constitution ran the place. We were to have an active role in every aspect of our nation’s existence.
The real problem in assessing the health of patriotism in America may be rooted in the collective perception of its definition. I am not ready to change my opinion that patriotism in America is a memory and a hope, given the definition of patriotism of the day, but perhaps just as the world changed around one unchanging man thereby redefining him, it can do the same with the definition of patriotism. As long as the definition remains a “love it or leave it” mentality with no room for revision, dissent or question, the thesis remains the same. If we can come to see the role of patriotism as a caring parent that takes that action, sets standards, and spends many sleepless nights fretting over its offspring, then I will say that patriotism is alive and flourishing in the United States America.