Defining Patriotism and Acts Thereof

I cried.

I’m man enough to admit it. I was watching a recent episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles” [SPOILER ALERT!] in which an entrepreneurial young Afghan immigrant aids the NCIS team. At the end, he unnecessarily risks his life to help stop jihadist suicide bombers. As a reward, Hetty (the team’s boss) arranges to have a personal naturalization ceremony. (He had already passed the written test.) When the judge says, “Mr. Navid, you’re about to become a citizen of the United States of America…. Please, put up your right hand and repeat after me,” the visibly choked-up young man says, “I don’t need to repeat. I know it by heart….”

American flag on poleThat young man was not even a citizen, yet, but he had already demonstrated his love for and loyalty to the U.S. and its founding principles. In only a few months, he had assimilated into the culture, started a business, and was eager to become a naturalized citizen. (Note: I might add that he was a legal immigrant, too, though that isn’t the focus of this post.) Sure, it was just a scene on a TV show with fictional characters, but it was quite moving — to me, at least — and it got me thinking. (Plus, it made me cry, dangit!)

We’ll get back to the scene later….

A couple days before that, I came across two or three articles discussing one aspect or another of the results of a new Fox News national poll. Among other things, the poll asked respondents — 1018 randomly chosen registered voters, nationwide and across the political spectrum — if they felt that certain activities were “acts of patriotism”. While I appreciate the intent of many of my compatriots’ answers, I have to say that I disagree with a lot of them on several of these. (And I consider myself pretty patriotic!)

Here are the acts of interest and their respective ‘Yes’ percentages:

Flying an American flag: 94%

Voting in elections: 93%

Joining the military: 90%

Serving on a jury: 83%

Staying informed on the news: 79%

Paying taxes: 78%
— consistent 80% for Dems, Reps, & Tea Partiers, with Independents only agreeing 73%

Volunteering on a political campaign: 70%

Participating in a political protest: 61%

Gun ownership: 50%

Before commenting further, we need a working definition of “patriotism”. The first one I found online — which, I think, suits our purpose — is “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.” Taking it a step further, in his book-length study of the topic, Stephen Nathanson (Professor of Philosophy at Northeastern University) identifies four components:

1) Special affection for one’s own country
2) A sense of personal identification with the country
3) Special concern for the well-being of the country
4) Willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good

(Check out this entry on “Patriotism” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for further examination.)

When I think of an “act of patriotism”, then, I imagine something that demonstrates the above devotion. Things like waving the American flag or joining the armed forces certainly qualify, though there are exceptions (e.g., if one is coerced). But, what about the rest? One may feel “patriotic” while doing these things and appreciative of the freedoms and privileges we have as Americans. But, are they really “patriotic” in themselves? Here’s what I mean….

Voting in elections is a privilege that comes with citizenship — well, it’s supposed to be limited to citizens –, but voting per se is not necessarily patriotic. Even setting aside instances of corruption, is it truly patriotic to vote for someone who is anti-American or an incompetent/delusional fool or just because s/he promise to give you free stuff?

Serving on a jury is a matter of civic duty and we are privileged to be able to participate in the justice system, helping to determine the guilt or innocence of our peers. But, I’m not so sure it is “patriotic” in itself. That’s not to say that the decisions of a jury (or an individual juror) on a particular type of case couldn’t be classified as “patriotic”.

Staying informed on the news is probably a wise thing to do, especially if one wants to be aware of current events and socio-political developments which affect our country at local, state, and federal levels. (This is one of the reasons why I research for and write this blog, after all.) That knowledge should help us when voting for people and supporting/opposing legislation, which can demonstrate patriotism.

We can argue about how much, if any, taxes are reasonable, and what kind, and certainly about the best way the government should spend them. But, we don’t have much choice about paying them, if we want to stay out of jail and/or avoid fines. (Yes, that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.) Of course, as I said, you can still feel patriotic about paying your taxes, and as long as you have to pay them, it’s probably good to try to stay positive. But, I tend to think it would truly demonstrate patriotism only if payment was voluntary and we could direct them to paying for things that benefited the security, defense, and general welfare of the nation. (Of course, your assessment of what that looks like may be different than mine.)

Volunteering on a political campaign can, I suppose, be considered patriotic, if the person or legislation you are supporting will truly make the nation and her citizens somehow better or safer, in line with the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Similarly, participating in a political protest can be patriotic, assuming that the cause is just. But, volunteering/participating in such things is not inherently an “act of patriotism”, especially if you have ulterior motives for doing so or if the person/cause is not good for the country.

U.S. Naturalization Ceremony

U.S. Naturalization Ceremony

Not surprisingly, considering gun ownership to be an “act of patriotism” varies widely according to political affiliation and where one lives. (For example, highest support was among Tea Partiers (79%) and in rural America (65%).) As big a supporter as I am of the Second Amendment, I do not think that gun ownership per se is a patriotic act. One can own a gun for many reasons, good and bad. Gun ownership is a constitutionally recognized and protected right (for now), but taking advantage of it does not make someone any more patriotic. Nor does not taking advantage of it, for whatever reasons, make someone any less patriotic. That’s just silly.

At least, that’s how I see it.

My purpose in all of this is merely a) to encourage us to think more carefully about definitions of terms in general, and b) to point out that we can be good, responsible citizens — “patriots”, even — without defining the fulfillment of every civic duty, right, or privilege as an “act of patriotism”.

And, now, back to our regularly scheduled program and the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to all [sic] foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic;….”

I got choked up again just re-watching this scene and transcribing the oath. (You can read the entire oath here.) The oath itself, when sworn with integrity, is one of the strongest acts of patriotism there is. I just wish more American citizens, including we natural-born, would reflect on it and take it to heart, even if we don’t need to formally declare it for legal purposes. In fact, I think some form of this would be a great thing to require of our youth, along with passing an exam of basic civics and U.S. history, before they are given the privilege of voting. Anyone else think this would be a good idea?

P.S.  Yes, I know that many children are still required to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance”. But, 1) I think it is repeated so often and without connection to history that it becomes mere words for many; and 2) there is some controversy over the wording and about swearing allegiance to a nation. Any new oath could declare love of country and loyalty to select ideals/principles, as embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but must not promise unconditional loyalty to a government. Any allegiance to a person (other than God Himself) or entity composed of persons should be conditional.

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