Our nation currently stands in a precarious position. There are serious issues across the country that require our immediate attention: a humanitarian crisis at the southern border, a rapidly changing climate and a presidential administration built on lies, scandals and shameless bullying. With everything going on, it can seem like the United States has let us down — that there is little reason to feel proud of this country.
A lot of people, indeed people I know, find it difficult to feel patriotic these days. The word itself can carry a stigma. While patriotism simply denotes a “love of or devotion to one’s country” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has taken on a different meaning to many people. The word “patriotism” today can carry connotations of xenophobia, racism and jingoism — indeed, an unflinching support for the country. That interpretation couldn’t be further from the truth.
It is entirely possible — and necessary — to criticize our government if we are to be truly patriotic. Patriotism and open criticism of the government are not mutually exclusive. Even President Teddy Roosevelt understood the importance of scrutinizing our nation’s leadership. Roosevelt once said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” This reasoning applies to the rest of our government and every institution of power in this country.
Criticizing our government — demanding that it improve — is among the most patriotic things one can do. Doing so demonstrates a love for country, a desire to see each other uplifted and recognized as real human beings.
To be sure, many Americans do hide behind veils of patriotism to conceal ugly attitudes. Still, racism, xenophobia and jingoism are not inherent to patriotism. You can love your country and remain harshly critical of it.
Of course, there can be no requirement to love your country. This article should not be construed as a commandment to live and breathe patriotism at any given point. Just as we are free to criticize our leaders as we wish, we are also free to hold our country in whatever regard we feel appropriate. That’s the beauty of the First Amendment. But to refuse patriotism on the grounds of its misappropriation by some individuals is erroneous and misplaced.
Is it possible that the critics of patriotism have settled on the wrong word for their grievances? Quite possibly. “Nationalism” is perhaps the word that these critics might be looking for. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nationalism” as the “advocacy of or support for the interests of one’s own nation, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” If nationalism hinges on prioritizing one’s own culture and interests at the cost of other nations, then racism, xenophobia and jingoism may well be byproducts.
Calls to preserve “American” or “Western” civilization are done always at the expense of non-Americans and almost always at the expense of non-white Americans. Consider President Donald Trump’s 2015 campaign speech, when the then-candidate called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Consider Trump’s comment from January 2018 that the U.S. should accept more immigrants from countries like Norway and fewer from “shithole” countries like Haiti and other African nations. Consider the “send her back” chants at a North Carolina Trump rally back in July, directed toward Somali-American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Nationalistic sentiments frequently cast immigrants — especially black, brown and Muslim immigrants — as “others,” constructing an “us versus them” mentality. These are calculated, ethnocentric efforts to preserve some outdated conception of “American” or “Western” culture at the expense of other cultures.
Just as notions of patriotism can be a sensitive topic, the same can be true for the American flag. We see it nearly everywhere we go — flying above city halls, baseball parks, airports and indeed, even Johnson Chapel. But many still have reservations about owning and displaying American flags, whether it’s found on a dorm room wall, worn on a T-shirt or used as a bumper sticker.
Just last year at Stanford, an administrator advised the Sigma Chi fraternity to remove the American flag flying above their front door, insinuating that the flag was an aggressive or intimidating symbol. The flag has garnered controversy at sports games, where athletes like Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe and many others have refused to stand for the national anthem and the American flag. The reasoning is clear: why stand for a flag that has witnessed decades of social inequalities, police brutality and racial hostilities, among other things? To many, the American flag represents these shortcomings.
But must the American flag be inextricably tied to these shortcomings? Not necessarily. To be sure, our government should be doing many things differently in order to uplift people. There are legitimate reasons to resent our leadership for these failures. The flag, however, is not the appropriate target for these objections.
A great feature of this country is that the policy that can improve our lives is implemented not by abstract, untouchable entities, but rather by real people who run for office. Social, political and economic progress occurs in this country primarily through exercising the rights to speak, assemble, petition, publish and vote. These avenues are distinctly American.
Patriotism and the American flag are dissimilar in that the former can be defined more easily than the latter. More so than patriotism, the American flag allows for wide differences in interpretation. Surely, the American flag above Johnson Chapel flies for reasons different from those espoused by the white nationalist groups that flew the same flag in Charlottesville during the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
But patriotism and the American flag are alike in that they both offer recourse for individuals to demand better. Neither are so rigid as to exclude the millions of individuals across this country who strive for change. Despite the ways certain individuals choose to represent them, patriotism and the American flag should be seen for what they are: not exclusively as reminders of this country’s flaws, but rather as enablers for our future — symbols of opportunity for all of us to ask, organize and act for better.