When I was growing up, the word "patriotic" made me cringe.
No, my parents weren't communists; they were devout anticommunists living in the Soviet Union. Patriotism, to me, meant allegiance to the Soviet regime—which, with the help of my parents, of banned literature we had in our home, and of equally forbidden foreign radio broadcasts, I had come to regard as tyrannical and profoundly evil before I had reached my teenage years. I loathed and despised the "patriotic" poems, songs, slogans, and rituals extolling the glories of communism and of "Soviet power" that were continually shoved down my throat at school.
Twenty-two years ago, when I was 17, my family came to the United States—arriving, as it happens, on July 1. Three days later I saw my first Independence Day celebration. Suddenly, there was a country I loved and admired that I could call my own, a country in which I could be moved by patriotic songs and by watching the flag fly.
And now, we have just celebrated our first Independence Day since the Sept. 11 attack on America—a solemn occasion to reflect on the meaning of patriotism.
American patriotism is unique in that it has nothing to do with national or ethnic origin. While it includes love for the land, it is rooted, above all, in love for an idea: the idea of a free country. Liberty, equality before the law, inalienable human rights, freedom of choice—America has not always lived up to these principles, but our nation was still founded on them. In World War II and in the Cold War, our enemies were also enemies of freedom. The same is true today in the war against terrorism.
Only people with a blame-America-first compulsion can see anything wrong with the outpouring of patriotism after Sept. 11. It was simply an affirmation of our right as a nation to defend ourselves against a horrific attack. But it is also true that patriotic sentiment, even in America, can degenerate into a jingoistic, authoritarian mentality that poses a threat to the very freedom on which our patriotism is based. This has happened before, in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was an excessive and ugly response to a very real danger. And, on occasion, it still happens.
It saddens me to see some politicians and commentators question the patriotism of those who warn against sacrificing our civil liberties to the war against terror. The civil libertarians may well be wrong on many issues; their absolutism may be naive or misguided. But in most cases, it is not unpatriotic. Even more disturbing are the attacks on the patriotism of those who criticize specific aspects of the conduct of the war while supporting the war itself. In March, after Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle voiced concern about the lack of a clear strategy in Afghanistan, conservative commentator Ann Coulter accused him of being anti-American, and the Democrats in general of "rooting against America."
It saddens me, too, when talk show hosts treat anyone who dares oppose the mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools as un-American, browbeating people who take this position with such questions as "Do you believe that America is the best country God gave man?" One can feel strong allegiance to America, and still believe that rote civic exercises are not the best measure of patriotism (personally, I think the pledge would be much more effective and much less likely to turn into meaningless words if recited on special occasions rather than daily or weekly).
While there is no country on earth where I would rather live, I also believe that one can love one's country without loudly proclaiming its superiority in everything to all others. Just as a man who is secure in his masculinity does not need to beat his chest and shout, "I'm a real man!" a true patriot does not need to beat his chest and shout, "We're the best!"
Make no mistake, there are people on the left (MIT linguist Noam Chomsky comes to mind) who seem to truly hate America and everything it stands for. They will reflexively sympathize with America's enemies even when those enemies espouse an ultra-reactionary ideology such as Islamic theocracy. But there are also people on the right who seem to regard dissent itself as unpatriotic, and sling about the word "anti-American" as casually as some leftists sling about the word "racist."
American patriotism is much too precious to let it be tarnished by such demagogic excesses.