I am not a gun toting, flag waving American. You will never catch me wearing an American flag tie to church, not because I’m not patriotic but because I think they’re tacky. Nor will I put a flag poll in my front lawn, not because I don’t honor the flag but because I could never treat it with due respect and care.
You will however find me standing quietly for the entire national anthem at a sporting event. You will find me solemn and reverent when I visit national historic monuments like those in D.C. My solemnity turns to tears when I walk the grounds, as I have been blessed to do, where our brave men and women have bled and died in places like Gettysburg, Saratoga, or Normandy. My patriotism is my own, and it is not something that I often flaunt.
However it is something that burns hot when I hear people use the guise of patriotism to justify the ugliest of racisms and bigotries. It infuriates me when people use their patriotism to justify private militias patrolling the borders, or to warn of the danger of Muslim immigration, or to belittle others as unpatriotic for not wearing a flag lapel pin.
The ideals that motivate these false patriotic sentiments are not the ones that allowed a Portuguese Sephardic Jewish emigre to pen “The New Colossus”. Yet Emma Lazarus looked forward with the hope implicit in Ellis Island and the immigration booths of New York City when she wrote the immortal words:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Sailing past that modern colossus my paternal great-grandfather and his parents came to this country. He carried with him the wounds he suffered in the trenches of Picardie and Alcase-Lorraine from shot and gas. Trusting in the promise that the Statue represents, he left the land of his fathers to come to America to make a better life.
At the same time but on the other side of the continent, my Mexican ancestors fled the violence of Pancho Villa and the Revolution to settle in California. There they lived, my great grandmother never learning English but raising her children to love their adopted homeland. There my grandfather watched the navy ships come in and out of the harbor and longed for the day when he too could join the navy, enlisting as so many others before he was of age to fight.
The stories of my immigrant ancestors, are the stories of my childhood. They framed my thinking of war and immigration. They framed my hope in societies ability to improve the lot of the downtrodden. But more importantly they framed my understanding of the potential of America herself.
My nationality is an act of God, nature, or biology over which I had no control. I could have just as easily been born in Baghdad, Paris, or Rio as Newport Beach, California. I can therefore, derive from this accident of birth no superiority over any other person in any other part of the world. But I can and should be grateful that I live in a nation where I have the opportunity to rise from humble beginnings and make for myself something better. That ultimately is the promise that my immigrant ancestors sought at Ellis Island and when they crossed the Rio Grande. It is that promise that makes me proud of my country and a patriot, despite my political leanings.
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