A flag is a painted piece of cloth. The easiest thing in the world is to have a flag and call oneself a “patriot.” But what is it to really love one’s country? Tolstoy wrote, “The time is fast approaching when to call a man a patriot will be the deepest insult you can offer him. Patriotism now means advocating plunder in the interest of the privileged classes of the particular State system into which we have happened to be born.”
But let’s say that you really want to be an “American patriot”; just waving a flag, I’m afraid, doesn’t cut it. As controversial as this may sound, neither does joining the military. The vast majority of our military men and women come from middle to low-income families. One has to ask, is joining the U.S. military a completely selfless act of service for the betterment of the United States? Some may join with that conscious intention, but whether one knows it or not, the motivation is usually much more self-centered. This country goes through extraordinary efforts to symbolically honor military personnel: stopping professional sporting events to sing to them, national holidays, commercials, and saluting and thanking them left, right and center. This is obviously important for recruitment. Many kids out of high school see a choice: get a decent salary and be honored and praised or work in the mall or at the gas station, maybe while plugging away at community college. The military is surely the easy way out. If you aren’t a felon, are able to run around a track without tripping, can add 2+2, and can pull a trigger, they will sign you up. Heck, sometimes they’ll sign people up who aren’t even American citizens, with the promise of citizenship. If you fall in this category, you’ll likely be shipped off as cannon fodder as soon as possible. Since our country is perpetually at war, many have to risk their lives in combat. But it isn’t at all like Soviet troops fighting in Stalingrad to save their country from the Nazis. U.S. military actions have been acts of aggression against some of the poorest countries on planet earth– cloaked in the typical altruistic justifications of self-defense or “humanitarian intervention.” Serving in the military is a job, in which employees are often required to do despicable crimes, which in civilian life would be labeled murder, rape, pillage, and torture. In the military they call it the “inevitability of war” or “collateral damage”– convenient terms for the military.
So if waving a flag or joining the military is not patriotic, what is it to be a true patriot (in the best sense of the word)? First, one should think critically about one’s own country and want it to be a civilized member of international society. People need to be informed and not take the words of their government as gospel and also understand that the mass media is overwhelmingly influenced by huge corporations with an agenda revolving around profit-making. Critical thinking, as Cornel West points out, takes courage, “more courage than soldiers [who merely take orders] on a battlefield.” In my opinion, critical thinking– with the best peaceful interests of one’s country and world in mind– is patriotic. It is a noble endeavor. Second, one should care about their fellow countrymen and exclaim with passion, “I want my taxes going not to the redundant military machine but to universal single payer health care, universal child care, better schools, safer neighborhoods, cleaner parks, protection for the elderly, debt free higher education, and other much-needed social programs.”
Being patriotic is not about a flag or your love of the natural scenery or buildings, but about standing up for your fellow countrymen and countrywomen. This requires not being gullible as well as rejecting policies that send young men and women to murder and torment people abroad while being killed and maimed themselves for corporate profits or for Israeli foreign policy objectives. It also means advocating for the most vulnerable at home, welcoming our guests and new arrivals– documented or not, and truly understanding, whether one is religious or not, the Gospel message of love your neighbor as thyself.