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Column: Should patriotism be compulsory?

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  • Randall Balmer. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, July 06, 2019

When I was in high school, in Iowa, I frequently took out our 4-foot by 6-foot American flag and hung in beside the front door of our two-story suburban home. This was not merely on national holidays — Memorial Day, Veterans Day — but any day. I recall wondering, with more than a tinge of self-righteousness, why our neighbors didn’t do the same. Shouldn’t Americans always be patriotic?

We’ve just concluded the most nationalistic week of our calendar, the week that includes Independence Day. Whereas other holidays are moveable observances (Presidents Day, for example, or Memorial Day), this is the one national holiday, Congress decided long ago, that would be dictated strictly by the calendar and not rejiggered to a Monday. Whatever day of the week it falls on — Thursday this year — will be the day the nation celebrates its independence from Britain.

A little more than two years into his presidency, however, Donald Trump has apparently decided that patriotism is really about him. Recall his recent tweet when U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe declared that she had no interest in visiting Trump at the White House should her team win the World Cup. Trump chastised Rapinoe for disrespecting “our Country, the White House or our Flag.”

Two things are notable in that phrase. First, the American flag has now become so sacred that Trump thinks it merits an uppercase letter. Second, disapproval of Trump himself somehow equates to disrespect for the nation itself, the White House and the flag, er, Flag.

Can anyone spell “fascism”? Merriam-Webster defines it as a movement “that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

My point here is not to assert that Trump is a fascist; that’s a longer conversation. But I think it’s one of the more remarkable developments in a remarkable presidency that the occupant of the Oval Office now equates patriotism with himself. Personally. How else can we construe a statement like that? Trump argued that Rapinoe’s refusal to visit the White House, because of her disregard for Trump himself, somehow translates into a lack of patriotism.

We saw more evidence of this conflation of Trump and nationalism this past week. Breaking with decades of bipartisan precedent of foreswearing partisanship on our high national holiday, Trump elected to insert himself into the celebrations on the Mall in Washington, offering a speech and treating the event as a campaign rally.

The message seems to be that if you love America and celebrate its independence (I do), you must also love and celebrate Donald Trump (I don’t).

The larger issue here is the matter of mandatory declarations of patriotism. We’ve grown accustomed to the national anthem at sporting events (though not, curiously, at rock concerts or art exhibitions). Anyone who is perceived to tamper with that tradition risks ostracism and opprobrium. (Ask Colin Kaepernick.) The City Council of St. Louis Park, Minn., was recently forced to back away from its decision to cease opening its meetings with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Part of the problem with patriotic displays is that it’s never enough. And when such displays become compulsory, they begin to lose their significance.

Consider baseball again. Following the horrendous attacks of 9/11, Major League teams began prompting fans to sing God Bless America in the middle of the fifth inning. After the shock of those attacks, God Bless America I’m sure provided a salve of healing for a traumatized nation. But the practice persists in many ballparks, even though it was recently revealed that the late Kate Smith, the singer who made God Bless America famous, recorded songs with racist content in the 1930s.

I have no particular quarrel with God Bless America, though I hope the Almighty is more interested in blessing the entire world, not just America. But the whole notion of being coerced into declarations of patriotism strikes me as, well, un-American.

I’ve told the story before of my one and only visit to Yankee Stadium, about a decade after 9/11. The game was a blowout, and we decided to leave early to beat some of the traffic. We stood to leave just seconds before the announcer commanded everyone to rise and sing God Bless America. As we proceeded toward the exit, however, we were blocked by yellow-shirted security guards holding chains across our path to prevent our passage.

I refer again to the definition of fascism, which “exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader.” In this case, the leader was George Steinbrenner, not Donald Trump, though I expect there are more than a few similarities between the two men. (Trump once called Steinbrenner his best friend.)

I don’t regret my youthful displays of patriotism. They were passionate and sincere. But I’d like to think my understanding of patriotism has matured somewhat over the years. What stirs my patriotism is the durability of our American institutions, a confidence (based in history) that this nation can survive deep wounds — the Civil War, Vietnam, Watergate and even the present crisis — and rebound from our divisions.

What makes me patriotic is my sense that we Americans sooner or later rise to our better selves and affirm the bedrock principles embedded in our charter documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Chief among those principles is the right of dissent and the notion that everyone is created equal. Don’t get me wrong: We’ve been far too slow to embrace those principles, especially for African Americans, women and other marginalized groups. But we somehow — eventually, sometimes painfully — stumble toward that ideal.

That makes me patriotic.

Patriotism is more than fireworks or flag-waving, more than singing the national anthem or God Bless America. True patriotism entails affirming the rights of minorities and honoring the conscience and the bravery of those who dissent.

Yes, Americans have every reason to be patriotic, but not in a narrow sense and certainly not because of coercion. A robust patriotism embraces diversity and dissent, Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick, those who stand for God Bless America and those who head for the exits.

Randall Balmer, author of First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty, teaches at Dartmouth College.