Pondering the Patriotic

Flags over Fort Sumter

My boys and I have been travelling. We’re just home from a short week down south, splitting our time between Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA. My younger son wanted to visit somewhere historic while my older just wanted to get away from home.  After a good deal of spirited debate, we decided to head toward some warmth and sunshine (my request).

We had a fine time, exploring the cities, visiting museums, and seeing the Atlantic Ocean (it’s a bit too cold to do more than see it). I’m not surprised it turned out this way, but a good amount of our activities revolved around war.  In Charleston, we walked through the Battery and White Point Gardens on the southern point of the peninsula that is the city. Cannon after cannon. War memorial after war memorial. The boys were delighted, especially my younger. He’s my history buff, and nothing says history to him like artifacts from wars.

One of many cannons in Charleston's battery along the water

The next day, we visited The Charleston History Museum, spending an inordinate amount of time with the exhibits on armory, the Civil War (referred to as the War Between the States on most of the signage), and one of the current special exhibits, Blasted, all about projectiles and explosives from the Civil War. Sure, they had some other fine exhibits, such as one on seasonal fashion at the turn of the 20th century and another on botanical quilts, but these didn’t pull my guys in like the ones about war. Oh, my older tried, at least a bit, to look at the others.  It was, however, a losing battle.

Fort Sumter followed the museum and was enjoyed by all of us, but of course that was all about war as well. Sure, we went down to the shore and checked out the delights low tide reveals, but war won out.  It was all entirely fascinating, although this pacifist mom can’t help but punctuate these explorations with sidebars about the concept just war, military propaganda, and the incredible amount of death all this warring creates.  The boys are used to that and able to carry on those discussions with enough interest and integrity to allow me to sleep knowing that war is no game to either of them.

A shell through a wall at Fort Sumter

Our last stop on the history tour of Charleston was Patriots Point. Patriots Point hosts a mock-up of a Vietnam support base, a Medal of Honor Museum, and USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier built after and carrying the name of one sunk in the Battle of Midway WWII and used subsequently in the Pacific toward the end of the same war.  A submarine and destroyer were closed for renovations. We all agreed the carrier and support base were fascinating to tour. We also all agreed that a future living on an aircraft carrier didn’t agree with any of us. Whew.

Patriots Point aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown

It was the trip to Patriots Point that took my thinking from history and war to patriotism.  Patriotism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a love for or devotion to one’s country.” Just what does it mean to be patriotic? If it means hoisting a flag on particular days on the calendar or sticking “God Bless America” to the bumper of my car, I fail the test. If it means holding my country as superior in all respects, I fail again. If it means I support massive defense spending and deployment of troops around the globe to protect US “interests,” I fail a third time.

I don’t think any of that, however, is patriotism. For the past year, both my boys have been studying US history via live and online classes, readings, videos, and discussion. It’s impossible, if one is paying attention, not to marvel at our founders’ determination to make America a place of freedom. Yes, they bungled it at points (allowing slavery to continue after founding this land of freedom would top this list). No, the results weren’t perfect. But basically, the result was a system designed to adjust to a changing world and protect against tyranny. Sometimes that change is colossally slow, and rarely do we agree as a nation what “protection against tyranny” really means; an election year magnifies all our differences in these definitions.

Understanding where we’ve been and those that came before us is a step towards patriotism. Learning one’s history, warts and all, and appreciating the freedoms we have fosters a patriotism that reaches far beyond flag waving and anthem singing. One can be patriotic and recognize that, as a nation, we don’t have it all right. We can learn from nations far older than ours and even from nations that no longer exist.

I think patriotism with nationalism are often confused.  Nationalism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” A quick web search for “liberal patriotism” reveals that many conservatives are actually describing a feeling of nationalism when explaining why liberals aren’t patriotic.  When the definitions are scrambled, it’s no wonder liberals are tagged as not patriotic. Nationalism places a human creation over humans, and by that I can’t abide.  I’m not nationalistic. I’m for human beings, wherever they’re from, whatever flag waves over their human-created boundaries.

But perhaps I can claim patriotism. Not the kind that’s noisy or warmongering. Not the sort that invokes the divine to protect one set of humans over another. Just the kind that learns from the past, hopes for the future, and works in the present to keep this nation one of true freedom to live, love, and grow.


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