A recent morning at the gym found me on a treadmill in front of the television dedicated to Fox News. The headline was something like “Millennials Not Patriotic” and went on to credit a recent survey by a conservative think tank that asked the youngins, “Do you think America is the greatest country in the world?” About half didn’t think so. As if that is the defining criteria of what makes one a patriot. I tracked it down to a study done by The Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness (FLAG). You can read more about their interesting poll questions here

A lot of folks confuse patriotism with something closer to nationalism. It’s not the same. Nationalism infers a belief of superiority of country and culture. Patriotism is about love of country, coming from the word compatriot, “fellow countryman.” A lot of folks think patriotism is simply about flying the flag, supporting the troops, and hating those who don’t. Google “patriotic art” and you’ll find glorious images of American flags, bald eagles, and men in military garb. I say let’s take back the meaning of “patriot.” 

Patriotism can be all those things espoused by the traditional ideas of the conservatives. But usually when we love someone, something, an idea, it also means we know when it’s not living up to its potential. Confronting a country’s racist past doesn’t make one any less patriotic. Do you love your spouse? Does he/she not have faults? Right, thought so. I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot, patriotism. It’s similar to how the right-wing evangelists have come to define what Christianity means to our culture, but often lacks a lot of the content of what Christ actually stood for…in my opinion. It makes it hard for folks to proclaim themselves as such.

I’ve been listening to these lectures on Walt Whitman and his influence on American culture. That dude was a goddamn patriot! Not your first image when you think “patriot,” eh? Good lord, he wrote about America all the time. But he also found its faults and felt personally hurt when it didn’t live up to the heights he gave it. He cherished Lincoln and was radical in his opposition to slavery. Whitman saw that the United States of America was for everyone.

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

America, Walt Whitman

You could argue that Whitman’s poetic America was an ideal passed on to the Beat poets, the vagabond folksingers, the nonconforming artists, the activists who saw that more, that “better” was possible. Definitely Woody Guthrie. Definitely Langston Hughes. Definitely John Coltrane. Definitely Jackson Pollock. Definitely Martin Luther King, Jr. Definitely….

I’ve recently been playing a song I wrote, called “Patriot.” I was timid about sharing it at first, not knowing how folks would receive it. It seems to be hitting a nerve and that makes me feel less alone in all of this. A couple folksinger friends have asked to cover it, and now I want everyone to cover it, share it, change the definition. Challenge the comfort of tradition. “I’m a patriot whether or not I look like one to you.”



Charlottesville is burning
America is on fire
White men stomping on the graves
Of slaves who built their empire

We got backwards superstitions
Passed off as true religion
The God I know would never
Put your bullets before children

Don’t tell me how to be proud
It’s my country too
I’m a patriot whether or not
I look like one to you

There is no expiration
On Children with a dream
They didn’t come to steal your job
Or change the language that you speak

Well, I wonder what it’s like
To choose where you were born
Try to make a better life
Then get sent back home to war

Don’t tell me how to be proud
It’s my country too
I’m a patriot whether or not
I look like one to you

Come gather around people
Wherever you may roam
Bring a bucket to the fire
They are burning down our home

Turn off the television
Don’t blame the quarterback
For trying to stand for something
By kneeling for the flag

Don’t tell me how to be proud
It’s my country too
I’m a patriot whether or not
I look like one to you

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