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The Ever-Changing Meaning of Patriotism

Patriotism should mean dedication to values and a healthy lust for liberty.

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By Willie Johnson | USA

If a nation is defined by the patriotism of its citizens, the United States is in dire straits. Today’s political climate has changed the very definition of patriotism, giving the term new meaning as time progresses and modern controversies stack up. Anti-authority sentiment and fierce dedication to home soil take hold in the Revolutionary Era, but today, criticism of the government and respect for military service has come to dominate American ideas about patriotism. Current attitudes are, for the most part, a healthy byproduct of patriotism, but pride for one’s country should spring from the early idea of love and enthusiasm for home.

The classic idea of patriotism first came about at the birth of America itself, but the kind of blind loyalty in many forms that it advocated remained a constant aspect of American culture until very recently. Religion has always played an important part, too, with many Americans holding their dedication to God above all earthly leaders while still maintaining respect for the government. While pride for home and country is the physical focus of patriotism, God is the spiritual focus. Worldly problems pale in comparison to unquestioning acceptance of religion, so it is clear why so many patriots cling to it tightly. The blind dedication also manifests itself in those who choose to cling to their principles unto death as a way of supporting their nation. In this case, being a patriot is living by the beliefs and values that America was founded on, allowing it to dictate the way life itself is lived. Although this is only one definition of the word, it has been influential on American culture by shaping the morals of generations of Americans. None of this is to say that patriotism should mean unconditional allegiance to authority, however, as dissidents are patriots under the classic definition too. While the founding fathers stuck close to their faith and principles, it is obvious that they were all dissidents of the highest order—they went against the authority of the British Empire, after all. There will always be some form of malevolent authority to oppose, and if done correctly, such action ultimately benefits the nation. Being patriotic has been characterized by these traits for most of American history, but unique new issues have changed and even called many of these beliefs into question.

Modern Patriotism has distinguished itself by adapting to current issues such as race relations, political divides, and military affairs. Today, being patriotic is primarily about the military and veterans in the eyes of many Americans; because service in the armed forces is widely considered as one of the greatest sacrifices to the country a person can make, it is held up by many as the paramount of patriotism. To those who define patriotism by military service, disrespecting the United States is disrespecting its veterans—an issue that has recently come to a head in the wake of the controversy surrounding the act of kneeling for the national anthem. For some, however, a patriot is someone who actively goes against their government to stand up for the personal freedoms of citizens. Although such behavior can be a good thing, extreme anti-government activity often does more harm to the nation than good. In this instance, patriotism has been skewed to fit the anarchist leanings of certain individuals who claim to support it. Even worse is the purely superficial view of patriotism that many Americans hold; the “patriotism gap” that seems to exist between our two major political parties is, for the most part, simply a contest of showiness. Being a patriot should not be about who waves the bigger flag, but rather who is willing to uphold the values of the nation. Million-dollar jet flyovers at football games and other examples of extravagance are good for hyping up a crowd, but should not be the embodiment of patriotism. Modern times may have cheapened the meaning of that it is to be a patriot, but in all examples, certain values shine through that gives hope for the future.

While the modern focus on superficial values like military service or contempt for government divides the nation, its original, unfettered form remains to hold all Americans together. For me, patriotism means dedication to values (whether they be religious or moral) and a healthy lust for liberty, free from the flaws of destructiveness and vanity. Attitudes are bound to be changed by crucial events and the passage of time, but the past does not have to be forgotten.

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