My Patriotism

James M. - Goleta, California
Entered on July 1, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
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My Patriotism: Jim Pearson

I grew up in the sixties when political philosophy was often expressed on bumper stickers. A bumper sticker popular at the time, “America: Love it or Leave it,” used to fill me with passion. How could people assume that anyone critical of government policies like drafting men for a misguided war did not love America? The response bumper sticker, “America: Change it or Lose it,” was not much better. It seemed to suggest that America was perilously close to losing the freedoms we all enjoy. Even as a teenager, I recognized that not everyone enjoyed these freedoms. My objection was not with the concept of change; my irritation was with the idea of “Loss.” For me America is about promise. Yet, I do not see us moving in an implacable march forward inevitably improving our freedoms and broadening opportunities. The last eight years reveal how fragile our freedom is and tentative and temporary the rights we enjoy really are. The current president has started two wars, and used these wars to excuse torture and curtail civil liberties. His ignorant arrogance took the goodwill and sympathy the world had offered us after 9-11 and squandered it. Still, I remain buoyed by hope. My patriotism is robust. I do love our country, not for what it is but what it has the capacity to become. We are not a perfect people and certainly we are flawed as individuals, but our public selves as expressed in our institutions are capable of being better than us. I am a believer in small “d” democracy, which trusts the capacity of ordinary citizens to live responsibly and make right decisions when given clear information. I believe that institutions can soften and ameliorate our imperfections.

As a small “d” democrat, I believe in the power of the people to make institutions that meet human needs and improve with human understanding. Our nation is a remarkable experiment in self-governance that remains utopian in its vision of itself.

When America was founded the people did not share a common culture, religion, or even language. The majority of Americans were from places where common culture, religion, and language were defining elements. A common history and pride of place were further elements that offered identity. But American identity was born with the Declaration of Independence. It is to a set of values that my love and loyalty abides. I love the idea that all people are born with unalienable rights, like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I also love the Preamble of the Constitution, a single meaty sentence that explains that the purpose of government is to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty. For me, America continues to be an experiment in self-governance. Patriotism to me is about trying to make our institutions live up to the values that led to their creation. The practical idealism of Madison, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. allows them to critique and chide America but always with the goal of forcing America to live up to its promise.

The American history I love is the one that allows us to see individuals exerting personal agency in attempting to guide us on our journey toward a more perfect union. One way to read our history is as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America. The history I honor includes people like William Lloyd Garrison, who devoted himself to closing the gap between what the United States says about equality, justice, and democracy and what it does. In his efforts to abolish slavery, he publicly burned the Constitution. Justice is not guaranteed by the Constitution. Justice is possible by telling truths about our imperfections and struggling to correct them.

We the people are responsible for our government and the action it takes, the future it envisions, and the history it writes. Patriotism is loyalty to a set of values and memories that must be renewed and revitalized by each generation in a pragmatic struggle between those content to preserve and protect the freedom they enjoy and those insistent on a larger more expansive view of what liberty might mean. Patriotism means working to discover what truly serves the common good and recognizing that until all of us are free, none of us are free.