Patriotism and True Patriotism

Jim Coufal

Patriotism has become the password to acceptance as a real American. But patriotism seems to have at least two distinct operative definitions, leading to the old saying that one person’s patriotism is another person’s treason, and to the notion that you are only a true patriot if you follow the definition I accept.

One definition, my definition, is that patriotism means a love of country. But “country” is too abstract; country is a house but a house is not a home without people. So when I refer to love of country I first refer to love of “we the people” where all people are self-evidently created equal (before the law). In a solid home, the abode of families, there is a give and take, honest but polite criticism, fierce love and, when necessary, there is dissent.

Thus, my definition of patriotism recognizes dissent as necessary for moving past the status quo, as does our constitutional right to free speech. This is proven by history in so many well-documented and well-known cases. Dissent does not make one unpatriotic; dissent is patriotic.

A recent obituary credited the deceased as having lived by her motto, “Treat all people with kindness and respect,” as witnessed by community service, a simple but powerful definition of living patriotically.

The second, and seemingly more widespread or at least more vocal definition of patriotism sees dissent as unpatriotic. This follows from the fact that this form of patriotism—I refer to it as its self-proclaimed “true patriotism”—has co-opted many traditional symbols of patriotism, such as the flag and the national anthem, making these symbols most closely connected to the military, as if they didn’t represent we the people, not just this subset of the people.

In the veneration of things military, duty, honor and courage become primary. Again, it is as if these traits were only exemplified by the military.

Teachers practice duty, honor and courage, as do firefighters, first-responders, doctors and nurses, scholars, scientists, parents and so many others. The practice of these traits does not require violence and death. But witness 4th of July celebrations, Veterans Day, Memorial Day – all celebrated as peons to conflict and war (and I do not mean to disparage veterans or their service).

What is overlooked in such celebration is the truth of Hemingway’s warning that, “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.”

Was it unpatriotic for Hemingway to say this?

This kind of patriotism leads to situations such as a family being harangued to sell their farmland or face a taking by eminent domain for the Keystone Pipeline, said of the sales pitch, “Boy, by the time she got done, you just wanted to jump up and salute the American flag.”

If you don’t sell the land, you are unpatriotic. It leads to such foolishness as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s comment that questioning a four-star general is inappropriate. That is a military standard, but not the standard of a patriot or a citizen-run country. It lionizes position, authority and obedience, not truth.

Or a final example, the Christian college that proclaimed that if the opposing players on a football team took a knee, the Christian college would immediately pull its players off the field and not play them because of their unpatriotic display, overlooking the fact that such a display is protected by our Constitution.

The views of patriotism create exclusion—we versus them—making a great divide. It appears to be one of the strongest tribal phenomenon, creating a country verging on the tribal outlook that led to the Civil War.

Yet, I believe it creates a false equivalency to overlook the fact that the true patriotism view attracts white nationalists, survivalists, skinheads, Nazis and violence.

To be a patriot requires speaking truth to power, which in turn requires critical thinking and knowledge of history. As a final example, those who condemn blacks for taking a knee say they are disrespecting the flag and the national anthem. It is not easy to face the truth of the treatment of blacks and other minorities in our history, including current times. Those feeling that black players taking a knee is unpatriotic miss the point: the players are practicing duty, honor and courage to improve our nation and should be respected for that.

Finally, the bottom line is, as author Ron Chernow reminds us in his new book, “Grant,” that, “Politics boils down to the stories we tell ourselves. And unfortunately we tell different stories…Unless we know where we’ve been as country, we don’t know where we are or where we are going.”

Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is a part-time philosopher and full-time observer of global trends. He can be reached at

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