"Patriotism," Mark Twain once wrote, "is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it."
It’s an interesting distinction, though not a line that everyone is free to draw. Military troops enlist in service of country, but the chain of command demands that they follow orders of the president, who heads the government but is also the commander in chief.
Still, the wry assessment by America’s most celebrated humorist provides some food for thought while packing up the refreshments for the family Fourth of July picnic today. Who can be described as patriotic in the America of 2011?
Nobody will contest that military members, both those in active duty and on reserve, can make the claim. With so many units serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, an enormous debt is owed for the sacrifice made not only by those in the field but by family members struggling to cope without them back home.
In the years after Vietnam and the military draft, the U.S. public has been increasingly disengaged from its war actions. Only the volunteer-only fighting force seems to be contributing to America’s three unfinanced war efforts. U.S. Sen. Carl Levin proposed a surtax to help pay the war bills two years ago but backed off in the face of criticism that taxing during a recession is a bad idea. That may be true, but continuing to run up war deficits in a country saddled with massive debt weighs down the economic recovery, too.
At the moment, notions such as surtaxes and war bonds seem to be political anachronisms, Americans have to think of other ways to demonstrate patriotism, to contribute toward this country’s continued prosperity and the perpetuation of its ideals.
Peace advocates often feel left out of patriotic expressions because too often they take on a militaristic cast: It becomes all about the defense of country rather than its everyday life. It doesn’t have to be that way. Patriotism is about the health of a nation, as well as its security, and everyone should have ways to celebrate that.
The health of this nation would be most helped, at this point, by higher employment. Government has a role to play here, certainly, but corporations and wealthy individuals also have the means to create new enterprises that offer hope to the jobless. Doing so is patriotic; there are many examples of Americans reinvesting in their communities.
Most people don’t find themselves so empowered, but patriotism belongs to more than the privileged. A healthy nation produces cultural riches, fine and performing arts that reflect something about its character. Think Broadway, Hollywood, Cajun, blues, jazz, rock, rap, artworks of every description. Engaging in that, supporting that, applauding that — all are ways of celebrating Americana, and it doesn’t have to cost a dime.
A healthy nation is one in which people believe they have a part to play in making things better. Volunteering for civic groups, running a Scout meeting, visiting a shut-in, donating blood, getting involved in the political process — all of these actions show a commitment to the greater good. All of them are patriotic, too.
Finally, patriotism isn’t only a duty. It’s a joy. Even those mourning the ban on consumer fireworks may have to admit that. Independence Day is an occasion to remember how lucky we are to live in this country, with all its problems, because it is still endowed with so much potential. That’s worth celebrating — at a picnic, concert or pyrotechnic display. Happy Fourth, everyone.