A friend asked me this past week what my feelings about patriotism were.
She caught me off guard. It had been a long time since I thought deeply about my relationship to my country. Since our conversation, I’ve continued to think about what it means to be a patriot and if I am one.
I should frame this by saying that I wasn’t born in the U.S. and grew up in an aggressively liberal part of California that would separate from much of the continental U.S. if that were constitutional. After leaving there, I lived outside the U.S. again. I’ve always worn my American-ness with a certain degree of discomfort: There were many aspects of American history that I’d been taught to condemn, and contemporary political actions — wars amongst them — that I disagreed with. I loved my country, but America was easier to love from across an ocean.
Since returning to the U.S., and in light of the current election, I’ve been forced to re-evaluate what I think and feel about being an American. The feelings of disappointment I’ve experienced as I watched the mudslinging, name-calling and general douche-baggery of this current political contest have been overwhelming. It’s a sense of disappointment that I know many of my friends and family also share. Yet even with this disappointment — or perhaps because of it — I no longer want to feel discomfort in this identity that is an essential part of who and what I am.
How, then, can I balance my disappointment, frustration, even my sense of outrage, with a desire to love my country? One crucial way is via something that my friend suggested: admiring and emulating values while being critical of individuals and policies. Nothing makes me happier to be an American than looking back on what we have done right; created a world in which people can protest, worship, speak, act and live in the way that they want.
Having lived in and seen places where these values are not the norm, I can affirm their importance: They are the difference between choice and no choice. When we Americans fail to uphold our values — and we do, unfortunately, as aptly demonstrated by past and present moments — we fail our country and ourselves.
I don’t want to live in a state of apathy about what happens in this country, or what could be done to me if I don’t advocate for myself and others. If I allow myself to remain hesitant, critical only from the side-lines, and refuse to call myself a patriot because I disagree with some policy or other, I fail at the first aspect of patriotism: commitment.
It is possible — no, it is essential — to be a patriot and critical at the same time, because those who truly love their country want to make it better. By calling myself a patriot who has hope for a better future in spite of past disappointment, I move from cynicism at the sidelines to coalition building at the center.
Yet, I can’t help but feel, as I take in political opinions and fear-mongering from all sides, that patriotism as a word and an idea is being manipulated for problematic ends. I want to advocate for a new kind of discussion about patriotism in America, a discussion in which it is possible to be critical and supportive at the same time. I want a world in which we talk about what is possible, not what compromises are inevitable; in which the battles to be fought are those against disease, poverty and crime instead of the other party.
Living in a divided nation makes it harder to be a patriot: We have to decide how to advocate for the country as a whole as opposed to merely our own perspective. Commitment and criticism are steps one and two of patriotism, but the third step is more difficult: service. Service by mouth and by action, by learning, educating and advocating. This kind of service makes you the truest type of patriot, one willing to work for change instead of only asking for it.
In the midst of a liberal milieu that often hesitates to own up to patriotism, I affirm (publicly) that I am a patriot. But I will only be a proud patriot in a world in which our politics and our policies are different, better and bring about the kind of world we deserve.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.