David Burns: America still needs patriotism and patriots

True patriotism faces history, all of it; the bad parts as well as the good parts.

FILE - In this March 22, 2019 file photo, an American flag flies outside the Department of Justice in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

On any given day, if I look in any direction from my house in Daybreak, I’ll usually see only one national flag flying — mine. Not even holiday observances like July Fourth, Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day move my neighbors to do a bit of flag waving. To be frank, this indifference disappoints me, even if it doesn’t surprise me.

The irony is that I self-identify as a liberal Democrat on most issues and, according to a New York Times database, my west side house is mostly a bluish island (~15% Democrats) in a reddish sea (52% Republicans).

American patriotism in 2021 is indeed complicated. And like everything else these days, it has become another battle space in the culture wars: most on the right back an unquestioning patriotism of America First that is more accurately called nationalism, and most on the left are either hostile to the idea of patriotism because of historical wrongs or consider national identity a relic of the past in a globalized world. But America still needs patriotism and patriots.

Patriotism is a feeling — love of one’s country — and then an expression such as standing for the national anthem, flying the flag or thanking veterans for their service. It should always be voluntary, unforced and un-performative — in other words, based on true feeling. (For that reason, I’m not a fan of the Pledge of Allegiance.) It’s a social construct, wrapped up in identity and loyalty to a political community.

The near death of a consensus American patriotism should concern us because, for a nation as diverse as ours to work, it must have unifying forces.

In his new book, “Last Best Hope,” George Packer argues patriotism serves an instrumental purpose, because “people still live their lives in an actual place, and the nation is the largest place with which they can identify — world citizenship [the happy place of cosmopolitan liberals] is too abstract to be meaningful — patriotic feeling has to be tapped if you want to achieve anything big. If your goal is to slow climate change, or reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.”

I would add to that list, present a united front against Chinese aggression.

To me, displays of patriotism alone don’t make someone a patriot. Patriots sacrifice for their fellow citizens. They act in service of our creed values: political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. Their motives are pure, unsullied by money or greed.

Soldiers are patriots because they risk their lives and sometimes die to protect us. But patriotic sacrifice can take many other forms as well.

In the last year, for example, American health care workers put in endless hours to treat patients with COVID-19, even though there were shortages of masks and PPE, and millions of Americans refused to remediate by wearing masks, or, later, getting vaccinated. Health care workers were three times more likely to get the virus than the general public. More than 3,600 died in the first year of the pandemic, a majority of them lower-paid nurses and support staff. Whatever health care workers were being paid, it wasn’t enough. They are American patriots.

Here are more recent examples:

• Colin Kaepernick was an NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers when, in 2016, he started taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice. He became a free agent after the season ended, but no team would sign him because of his activism, ending his career at age 28.

• Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was assigned to the White House’s National Security Council when he testified in the House’s first impeachment proceeding of Donald Trump. It destroyed his military career, and he is now a civilian.

• Sen. Mitt Romney was the lone Republican senator to vote to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial in 2020. That was the first time in American history that a senator voted to impeach a president of his own party. He is now isolated in his party.

• Rep. Liz Cheney was No. 3 in the House Republican leadership when, on May 12, she was ousted because she has challenged Trump’s false claim that the presidential election was stolen. She was one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump a second time for his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Wyoming Republicans have censured Cheney and asked her to resign.

This diverse group of Americans shares a strong commitment to a single idea: dissent. Each has dissented against powerful forces at great personal cost. There is nothing more American than dissent. The nation was birthed in dissent — the American Revolution.

Our belief in dissent means we can have a complicated relationship with our country. True patriotism faces history, all of it; the bad parts as well as the good parts. Because nations, like individuals, are inherently flawed.

W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1935: “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, as far as the truth is ascertainable?”

Just as we love family members even with their flaws, we can still love our country even with its many mistakes. And with that love comes the right to criticize it.

“I love America more than any other country in this world,” James Baldwin wrote in “Notes of a Native Son,” “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

That’s who we are: an eternally disputatious, disagreeable collective that is at the same time the world’s last best hope.

David Burns

David Burns has degrees in history and law. He lives in Salt Lake City.