Presented here are a some essays that I have assembled for all of you with a patriotic heart. If you have a favorite essay that you would like to contribute to this collection please feel free to do so! Be sure to include the title & author (if known) to Contact Us.
If one asks me the meaning of our flag, I say to him: It means just what Concord and Lexington meant, what Bunker Hill meant. It means the whole glorious Revolutionary War. It means all that the Declaration of Independence meant. It means all that the Constitution of our people, organizing for justice, for liberty and for happiness, meant.
Under this banner rode Washington and his armies. Before it Burgoyne laid down his arms. It waved on the highlands at West Point. When Arnold would have surrendered these valuable fortresses and precious legacies, his night was turned into day and his treachery was driven away by beams of light from this starry banner.
It cheered our army, driven out from around New York, and in their painful pilgrimages through New Jersey. This banner streamed in light over the soldiers' heads at Valley Forge and at Morristown. It crossed the waters rolling with ice at Trenton, and when its stars gleamed in the morning with a victory, a new day of hope dawned on the despondency of this nation.
Our Flag carries American ideas, American history and American feelings. Beginning with the Colonies, and coming down to our time, in its sacred heraldry, in its glorious insignia, it has gathered and stored chiefly this supreme idea: divine right of liberty in man. Every color means liberty; every thread means liberty; every form of star and beam or stripe of light means liberty - not lawlessness, but organized, institutional liberty - liberty through law, and laws for liberty!
This American Flag was the safeguard of liberty. Not an atom of crown was allowed to go into its insignia. Not a symbol of authority in the ruler was permitted to go into it. It was an ordinance of liberty by the people, for the people. That it meant, that it means, and, by the blessing of God, that it shall mean to the end of time!
[Note: From the Nov.-Dec. 1994 National Flag Foundations "Standard Bearer" Magazine.
This article remains the copyrighted material of the National Flag Foundation and is presented here by permission.]
As Vice President and as a Senator and member of Congress before that, I have visited dozens of foreign countries.
Believe me when I say I have seen lots of flags. Every country in the world flies flags on ceremonial occasions, such as the arrival of dignitaries on official trips.
But something sets Americans apart. We don't just put out the flag for important visitors, or on solemn occasions, and then put it away. Ordinary Americans, by the millions, revere our flag and display it every day.
We fly it from tall poles in front of our businesses, from short poles in our front yards, from balcony railings in our condominium complexes. We pin the flag on our jacket lapels and paste it to the windows of our cars and trucks.
As soon as our toddlers can hold a little stick in their tiny fists, we give them Old Glory to wave at the Fourth of July parade. And at life's end, we drape the caskets of our fallen patriots with the Stars and Stripes.
This proud display of, and devotion to, the symbol of our nation is uniquely American. It is how we reaffirm the fact that we are indeed "one nation" and that whatever our other differences, there are core values Americans hold in common: a belief in the dignity of the individual, a love of liberty, and a commitment to government of, for, and by the people.
By displaying the flag, we express our gratitude to the generations past who fought and died for this country, and we remind ourselves of our obligation to preserve for generations to come the freedom that others won for us.
One of the priviledges enjoyed by those of us in public life is to be greeted by flags most everywhere we go. This simple expression of patriotism is often a welcome relief from the cynicism of elites in our nation's capital who are too "sophisticated" to be caught waving a flag.
My aquaintances in the major media might find this hard to believe, but there's nothing like seeing proud faces of youngsters reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to remind you of the high ideals that first led you to seek elected office.
I realize that the temper of our times is increasingly cynical, that Americans in growing numbers raise a skeptical eyebrow upon hearing the words "high ideals" and "elected office" in the same breath.
If you read the same newspaper stores I do, then you have seen the public opinion polls showing in what low repute we now hold the major branches of government.
I must admit there are days when I understand those feelings. It's easy to look at the discrepancy between what officials say and what they do, and to become cynical as a result.
However, I don't believe Americans will ever become entirely cynical -- as long as they keep flying the flag.
As a symbol of our republic and its institutions, our link to this country's past and to its future, the flag helps us keep in mind that the Founding Fathers created a durable and admirable system of government.
The founders didn't pretend to guarantee that only honorable men and women would hold office. In fact, they assumed the opposite -- and created a system of checks and balances as insurance against the imperfect politicians they knew would always exist.
In other parts of the world, people tend to find Americans' love of the flag overly sentimental. I believe that our system of government, for all its occasional flaws, is still the finest in the world.
Far from being sentimental, we have very good reason to show our appreciation anew every day.
This country was not built by men who relied on somebody else to take care of them. It was built by men who relied on themselves, who dared to shape their own lives, who had enough courage to blaze new trails with enough confidence in themselves to take the necessary risks.
This self-reliance is our American legacy. It is the secret of that something which stamped Americans as Americans. Some call it individual initiative, others backbone. But whatever it is called, it is a precious ingredient in our national character, one which we must not lose.
The time has come for us to re-establish the rights for which we stand, to re-assert our inalienable rights to human dignity, self-respect, self-relianceto be again the kind of people who once made America great.
Such a crusade for renewed independence will require a succession of inspired leaders, leaders in spirit and in knowledge of the problem, not just men with political power, but men who are militantly for the distinctive way of life that was America. We are likely to find such leaders only among those that promote self-reliance and who practice it with strict devotion and understanding.
No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve.
This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received?
Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land.
Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love?
Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years.
Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves.
Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne!
In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope.
If we wish to be free -- if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending -- if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained -- we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us! They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength but irresolution and inaction?
Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.
Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!
The war is inevitable -- and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace -- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!
I know not what course others may take but as for me; give me liberty or give me death.
On the night of Good Friday, 1865, he left us to join a blessed procession, in neither doubt nor fear, but his soul does indeed go marching on. For this was the Bible-reading lad come out of wilderness, following a prairie star, filled with wonder at the world and its Maker, who all his life, boy and man, not only knew the Twenty-third Psalm but, more importantly, knew the Shepherd.
Now it seems possible that we shall never see his like again. This is a sobering thought, but it should be a kindling one, for upon us now, as a people and a party, has been laid perhaps the greatest responsibility any nation was ever asked to shoulder, yet certainly not greater than we can bear.
Our days are no longer than were Lincoln's, our nights are no darker, and if there is any difference between his time and this it lies in the tremendous advantage that is ours, that he stood so tall before us. In such a time and at such a moment we surely can say then, from hopeful, brimful hearts:
We are standing, Father Abraham, devoted millions strong, firm in the faith that was yours and is ours, secure in the conviction bequeathed by you to us that right does make might and that if we but dare to do our duty as we understand it, we shall not only survive
--we shall prevail.
What's a flag? What's the love of country for which it stands? Maybe it begins with love of the land itself. It is the fog rolling in with the tide at Eastport, or through the Golden Gate and among the towers of San Francisco. It is the sun coming up behind the White Mountains, over the Green, throwing a shining glory on Lake Champlain and above the Adirondacks. It is the storied Mississippi rolling swift and muddy past St. Louis, rolling past Cairo, pouring down past the levees of New Orleans. It is lazy noontide in the pines of Carolina, it is a sea of wheat rippling in Western Kansas, it is the San Francisco peaks far north across the glowing nakedness of Arizona, it is the Grand Canyon and a little stream coming down out of a New England ridge, in which are trout.
It is men at work. It is the storm-tossed fishermen coming into Gloucester and Provincetown and Astoria. It is the farmer riding his great machine in the dust of harvest, the dairyman going to the barn before sunrise, the lineman mending the broken wire, the miner drilling for the blast. It is the servants of fire in the murky splendor of Pittsburgh, between the Allegheny and the Monongahela, the trucks rumbling through the night, the locomotive engineer bringing the train in on time, the pilot in the clouds, the riveter running along the beam a hundred feet in the air. It is the clerk in the office, the housewife doing the dishes and sending the children off to school. It is the teacher, doctor and parson tending and helping, body and soul, for small reward.
It is small things remembered, the little corners of the land, the houses, the people that each one loves. We love our country because there was a little tree on a hill, and grass thereon, and a sweet valley below; because the hurdy-gurdy man came along on a sunny morning in a city street; because a beach or a farm or a lane or a house that might not seem much to others were once, for each of us, made magic. It is voices that are remembered only, no longer heard. It is parents, friends, the lazy chat of street and store and office, and the ease of mind that makes life tranquil. It is Summer and Winter, rain and sun and storms. These are flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, blood of our blood, a lasting part of what we are, each of us and all of us together.
It is stories told. It is the Pilgrims dying in their first dreadful Winter. It is the minute man standing his ground at Concord Bridge, and dying there. It is the army in rags, sick, freezing, starving at Valley Forge. It is the wagons and the men on foot going westward over Cumberland Gap, floating down the great rivers, rolling over the great plains. It is the settler hacking fiercely at the primeval forest on his new, his own lands. It is Thoreau at Walden Pond, Lincoln at Cooper Union, and Lee riding home from Appomattox. It is corruption and disgrace, answered always by men who would not let the flag lie in the dust, who have stood up in every generation to fight for the old ideals and the old rights, at risk of ruin or of life itself.
It is a great multitude of people on pilgrimage, common and ordinary people, charged with the usual human failings, yet filled with such a hope as never caught the imaginations and the hearts of any nation on earth before. The hope of liberty. The hope of justice. The hope of a land in which a man can stand straight, without fear, without rancor.
The land and the people and the flag, the land a continent, the people of every race, the flag a symbol of what humanity may aspire to when the wars are over and the barriers are down: to these each generation must be dedicated and consecrated anew, to defend with life itself, if need be, but, above all, in friendliness, in hope, in courage, to live for.
I am an American: That's the way we put it, simply, without any swagger, without any brag, in those four plain words.
We speak them softly, just to ourselves.
We roll them on the tongue, touching every syllable, getting the feel of them, the enduring flavor.
We speak them humbly, thankfully, reverently: I am an American.
They are more than words, really. They are the sum of the lives of a vast multitude of men and women and wide-eyed children.
They are a manifesto to mankind; speak those four words anywhere in the world -- yes, anywhere -- and those who hear will recognize their meaning.
They are a pledge. A pledge that stems from a document which says: "When in the course of human events," and goes on from there.
A pledge to those who dreamed that dream before it was set to paper, to those who have lived it since, and died for it.
Those words are a covenant with a great host of plain Americans, Americans who put their share of meaning into them.
Listen, and you can hear the voices echoing through them, words that sprang white-hot from bloody lips, scornful lips, lips a tremble with human pity:
"Don't give up the ship! Fight her till she dies... Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead! . . . Do you want to live forever? . . . Don't cheer, boys; the poor devils are dying."
Laughing words, June-warm words, words cold as January ice:
"Root, hog, or die. .. I've come from Alabama with my banjo. . . Pike's Peak or bust! . . . Busted, by God! . . . When you say that, smile.... Wait till you see the whites of their eyes.... With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right.... I am not a Virginian, but an American."
You can hear men in assembly summoned, there in Philadelphia, hear the scratch of their quills as they wrote words for the hour and produced a document for the ages.
You can hear them demanding guarantees for which they suffered through the hell of war, hear a Yankee voice intoning the text of ten brief amendments.
You can hear the slow cadences of a gaunt and weary man at Gettysburg, dedicating not a cemetery, but a nation.
You can hear those echoes as you walk along the streets, hear them in the rumble of traffic; you can hear them as you stand at the lathe, in the roaring factory; hear them in the clack of train wheels, in the drumming throb of the air liner; hear them in the corn fields and in the big woods and in the mine pits and the oil fields.
But they aren't words any longer; they're a way of life, a pattern of living.
They're the dawn that brings another day in which to get on the job.
They're the noon whistle, with a chance to get the kinks out of your back, to get a bowl of soup, a plate of beans, a cup of coffee into your belly.
They're evening, with another day's work done; supper with the wife and kids; a movie, or the radio, or the newspaper or a magazine -- and no Gestapo snooping at the door and threatening to kick your teeth in.
They are a pattern of life as lived by a free people, freedom that has its roots in rights and obligations:
The right to go to a church with a cross or a star or a dome or a steeple, or not to go to any church at all; and the obligation to respect others in that same right.
The right to harangue on a street corner, to hire a hall and shout your opinions till your tonsils are worn to a frazzle; and the obligation to curb your tongue now and then.
The right to go to school, to learn a trade, to enter a profession, to earn an honest living; and the obligation to do an honest day's work.
The right to put your side of the argument in the hands of a jury; and the obligation to abide by the laws that you and your delegates have written in the statute books.
The right to choose who shall run our government for us, the right to a secret vote that counts just as much as the next fellow's in the final tally; and the obligation to use that right, and guard it and keep it clean.
The right to hope, to dream, to pray; the obligation to serve.
These are some of the meanings of those four words, meanings we don't often stop to tally up or even list.
Only in the stillness of a moonless night, or in the quiet of a Sunday afternoon, or in the thin dawn of a new day, when our world is close about us, do they rise up in our memories and stir in our sentient hearts.
Only then? That is not wholly so -- not today!
For today we are drilling holes and driving rivets, shaping barrels and loading shells, fitting wings and welding hulls,
And we are remembering Wake Island, and Bataan, and Corregidor, and Hong Kong and Singapore and Batavia;
We are remembering Warsaw and Rotterdam and Rouen and Coventry.
Remembering, and muttering with each rivet driven home: "There's another one for remembrance!"
They're plain words, those four. Simple words.
You could write them on your thumbnail, if you chose, Or you could sweep them all across the sky, horizon to horizon.
You could grave them on stone, you could carve them on the mountain ranges.
You could sing them, to the tune of "Yankee Doodle."
But you needn't. You needn't do any of those things, For those words are graven in the hearts of 130,000,00 people, they are familiar to 130,000,000 tongues, every sound and every syllable.
But when we speak them we speak them softly, proudly, gratefully:
I am an American.
We do honor to the stars and stripes as the emblem of our country and the symbol of all that our patriotism means.
We identify the flag with almost everything we hold dear on earth. It represents our peace and security, our civil and political liberty, our freedom of religious worship, our family, our friends, our home. We see it in the great multitude of blessings, of rights and privileges that make up our country.
But when we look at our flag and behold it emblazoned with all our rights, we must remember that it is equally a symbol of our duties. Every glory that we associate with it is the result of duty done. A yearly contemplation of our flag strengthens and purifies the national conscience.
In response to a request from England for a description of Col. George Washington, his aide-de-camp, John Francis Mercer, wrote:
"He may be described as being as straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings and weighing 175 pounds when he took his seat in the House of Burgesses in 1759. His frame is padded with well developed muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large, as are his feet and hands.
"He is wide shouldered, but has not a deep or round chest; is neat waisted, but is broad across the hips, and has rather long legs and arms. His head is well shaped though not large, but is gracefully poised on a superb neck. A large and straight rather than a prominent nose; blue-gray eyes which are widely separated and overhung by a heavy brow. His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheek bones, and terminates in a good firm chin. He has a clear though rather colorless pale skin, which burns with the sun. A pleasing, benevolent, though a commanding countenance, dark brown hair, which he wears in a cue.
"His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloscs some defective teeth. His features are regular and placid, though fiexible and expressivc of deep feeling when moved by emotion."
What strange doubts assail this timid generation of today as it beholds the challenges to both liberty and equality. We seem beset with fear not faith, with doubt not confidence, with compromise not conviction, with dismay not dedication. We are drenched with the literature of fear and doubt. Survival has become the main theme. The fall-out shelter from which the stars of hope and courage cannot be seen has become the symbol of our fears and misgivings.
Are we to become fearful, unworthy legatees in a blessed, united land where the earth is fertile to our every need, where the skills and ingenuity of men are boundless, where the burdens are bearable, where decent living is within the reach of all, and where the genius to produce is unlimited?
Perhaps we have lost our sense of continuity? Perhaps we have forgotten that we move in that same endless stream which began with our forefathers and which will flow on and on to embrace our children and our children's children. If we have, there will have gone with it that sense of individual responsibility which is the last best hope that a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality can long endure.
Comes then the reminder from the man from Illinois. Men died here and men are sleeping here who fought under a July sun that the nation might endure, united, free, tolerant, and devoted to equality. The task was unfinished. It is never quite finished.
I was born an American; I live an American; I shall die an American; and I intend to perform the duties incumbent upon me in that character to the end of my career. I mean to do this with absolute disregard of personal consequences.
What are the personal consequences? What is the individual man, with all the good or evil that may betide him, in comparison with the good or evil which may befall a great country, and in the midst of great transactions which concern that country's fate?
Let the consequences be what they will, I am careless. No man can suffer too much, and no man can fall too soon, if he suffer, or if he fall, in the defense of the liberties and constitution of his country.
The first time I ever saw Mr. Webster was on the 17th of June, 1825, at the laying of the corner-stone of the Bunker Hill Monument. I shall never forget his appearance as he strode across the open area, encircled by some fifty thousand personsmen and women, waiting for the "Orator of the Day," nor the shout that simultaneously burst forth, as he was recognized, carrying up to the skies the name of "Webster!" "Webster!" "Webster!"
It was one of those lovely days in June, when the sun is bright, the air clear, and the breath of nature so sweet and pure as to fill every bosom with a grateful joy in the mere consciousness of existence. There were present long files of soldiers in their holiday attire; there were many associations, with their mottoed banners; there were lodges and grand lodges, in white aprons and blue scarfs; there were miles of citizens from the towns and the country round about; there were two hundred gray-haired men, remnants of the days of the Revolution.
Mr. Webster was in the very zenith of his fame and of his powers.
There was a grandeur in his form, an intelligence in his deep dark eye, a loftiness in his expansive brow, a significance in his arched lip, altogether beyond those of any other human being I ever saw. And these, on the occasion to which I allude, had their full expression and interpretation.
When he came to address the few scarred and time-worn veterans, some forty in number, who had shared in the bloody scene which all had now gathered to commemorate, he paused a moment, and, as he uttered the words "Venerable men," his voice trembled, and I could see a cloud pass over the sea of faces that turned upon the speaker.
He said: "Our poor work may perish, but thine shall endure: this monument may moulder away, the solid ground it rests upon may sink down to the level of the sea; but thy memory shall not fail. Wherever among men a heart shall be found that beats to the transports of patriotism and liberty, its aspirations shall claim kindred with thy spirit!"
I have never seen such an effect, from a single passage. Lifted as by inspiration, every breast seemed now to expand, every gaze to turn above, every face to beam with a holy yet exulting enthusiasm. It was the omnipotence of eloquence, which, like the agitated sea, carries a host upon its waves, sinking and swelling with its irresistible undulations.
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Recently, a student government council at the University of California, Irvine voted to remove all flags, including and especially the American flag, from a student lounge. The flag ban was meant to create a more inclusive space, but the American flag was also targeted for specific reasons. According to the six students who made the decision, the flag symbolizes “colonialism” and “imperialism,” and therefore is not appropriate in a public space for students of all nationalities, political philosophies and creeds. The ban quickly met backlash from the university, the media, and the general student government at UC Irvine, which quickly overturned the decision. Even so, the controversy at Irvine is not over; a meeting planned to discuss the flag ban was cancelled due to the threats of violence. Such a vitriolic response to a trivial decision to remove flags from an “obscure campus lobby” is a telling one. Calls from conservatives to make these six students, responsible for a decision that affected almost no one, “famous” is indicative of how contentious debate surrounded patriotic symbols, like the flag, can be.
The firestorm at Irvine is not an anomaly, though, when it comes to controversies surrounding American patriotism. With the 2016 presidential contest looming, Republicans have resurrected a question they’ve entertained since the 2008 election: whether President Obama loves America or not. Rudy Giuliani, once one of the most popular political figures in the country, recently accused the president of inciting violence towards police officers and decried his lack of patriotism. And Giuliani’s rhetoric isn’t an outlier, by any means. GOP presidential contenders from Mike Huckabee to Jeb Bush have all weighed in on Obama’s lack of loyalty and pride for his country.
The controversy surrounding the flag and what it means to love your country bring to light three of the current prevailing ideas surrounding American patriotism and its current state in political dialogue. There are the UC Irvine council students and their supporters, who claim the flag, and by extension American patriotism, is symbolic of racist, systematic oppression. And there are Republicans like Giuliani who believe that to love your country means to absolutely defend it and insist on its superiority, accepting American ideals of exceptionalism without question. Finally, there is, what seems to be the president’s view. For Obama, and many of his ideological allies, to love one’s country does not mean to support it blindly or ignore its failings, but to believe in its core values and the opportunities those core values can realize.
The idea that American patriotism is a noxious phenomenon, capable of stirring “nationalistic” sentiment and disseminating dangerous ideals is not a new one, and certainly not unique to UC Irvine’s campus. This notion that the flag stands for hatred and violence was prevalent throughout the 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam protests, many of which occurred on college campuses. Today, even at southern schools like Louisiana State University, where there was recently a controversy over a graduate student insistent on burning the flag in public, there are college students who view American patriotism, and the flag, in a similarly negative light. Furthermore, this criticism of excessive patriotism is not only an attitude of idealistic youth and college students. In fact, numerous professors at UC Irvine came out defending the instituted flag ban. This view that patriotism in all its forms is exclusionary and inherently lifts up the bigotry and violence characteristic of some of America’s history is largely out of step with the general American public. After all, 80 percent of Americans in 2010 believed that the United States was the greatest country in the world.
Giuliani and other prominent conservatives offer a differing, and perhaps more popular, view of patriotism. Their definition can be gleaned from their critiques on the president’s patriotism or lack thereof. Mike Huckabee claims that Obama hopes to see America weaken, while Jeb Bush claims that he doesn’t believe “American power is a force for good.” So to Huckabee and Bush, and many other influential Republicans, being patriotic means asserting and supporting American strength. Giuliani adds an addendum to this definition, claiming that Obama doesn’t love America because he “wasn’t brought up” the way many “we” were. This idea that being raised the American way means having two clean-cut conservative white parents is not only wrong but also hypocritical, given that Giuliani’s own father was heavily involved in organized crime. To some conservatives like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and now Rudy Giuliani, being raised in Hawaii by a single mother and two white grandparents, one of whom was a war veteran, with an African and absent father disqualifies you from legitimately loving the United States.
A more recent and most interesting addition to the ultra-conservative definition of love for this country is a love for “colonialism.” In Dinesh D’Souza’s massively successful 2012 documentary, “2016: Obama’s America,” one of the major themes was how Obama’s alleged anti-colonial sentiment contributed to his lack of patriotism. Colonialism is not usually attributed to patriotism but to D’Souza there is a direct correlation. D’Souza, Newt Gingrich and now Rudy Giuliani believe an admiration for colonialism is a precondition to loving America. And apparently, in that department, the president is lacking.
This confusing conception of patriotism is the version that often overreacts to the shallowest displays of disrespect. Forgetting to wear an American flag lapel pin, for example, or to place a hand over your heart during the national anthem become tantamount to treason. Failure to embrace America’s past and present wholeheartedly is condemned as an attack on the country and its ideals. This superficial patriotism, the kind that focuses on flag code rather than supporting American peace efforts, as Republicans failed to do recently in the Senate, sending a letter to Iran denouncing ongoing and intense peace negotiations regarding nuclear weapons, undermines the patriotism Obama speaks of, that is, pride in the core values that most Americans hold true.
During last week’s speech on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the bridge where fifty years prior African-Americans marching for voting rights had been brutally attacked, President Obama articulated his version of patriotism:
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
A “self-critical” patriotism is certainly harder to articulate and accept than that espoused by the UC Irvine student council or Giuliani, but it seems to be the most edifying because it allows Americans to support and love their country without forcing them to support and love all of its actions. President Obama views patriotism as nuanced; being patriotic, to him, does not force an awkward pride for America’s wrongs—mass incarceration, slavery, segregation, Iraq and Vietnam, gender inequality, imperialism and bigotry. Rather, it means being proud of our “highest ideals.” These are the ideals that Americans are taught in elementary school, chief among them that the American government ought to guarantee, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” History proves that America has constantly betrayed these ideals for economic benefit or to assert its preeminence on the world stage. Still, if the arc of American history leans towards these values, and if there are Americans who everyday are fighting for them, at least to President Obama, America is worthy of pride.
The 2016 presidential election will bring with it the quadrennial competition to be the most patriotic presidential candidate. While the Democratic nominee, presumably Hillary Clinton, will tout her decades of service to her country, her opponent will claim she worked all her life for her own advancement and never for the advancement of America. And in the end, patriotism probably won’t play a huge role in determining the outcome. It didn’t in 2008. John McCain, a man whose patriotism was proven by physical scars, tried to define his opponent as an apologist and subversive, but in the end, Obama won a decisive victory. The candidate in 2016, too, probably won’t win because they seemed the most patriotic. But, the American public will continue having this debate. As students at UC Irvine, conservative pundits, and President Obama define their forms of patriotism, the public will continue to as well. Rather than directly affecting just one political contest, the winning definition will surely affect the trajectory of American domestic and foreign policy for generations to come.