As a child, patriotism was handed to me like a baked potato with butter and sour cream: Nothing special, just something that comes with being a resident of rural, conservative southern Idaho.1
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In the 1970’s – my coming-of-age decade – I would never have defined myself as conservative, or anything else for that matter. Jerome, Idaho (population 7,000 at the time), was not swept up in much of anything that was troubling the country at large. It was just where I existed: farming, wrestling, Boy Scouting, and generally doing what any kid does no matter where he finds himself…fitting in, trying new things, dreaming of adventures, and growing up.
But you can’t sit in a pot of stew for 18 years and not soak up some of the seasonings.
Somewhere, deep in my bones, the association between small-town conservativism and true patriotism was locked in. One was intrinsic to the other; to become less conservative meant becoming less patriotic. How could it be otherwise?
My drift toward doubting the exceptionalism of America began when I became a young adult. As I left my life on a small farm outside a small town to join the larger world, I had no idea that I was taking the first steps toward disbelief.
The unthinking patriot
I’m a lifelong doubter.
I’ve always envied certainty because I’ve rarely experienced it. What a relief it would be to simply believe – in anything – without the gnawing uncertainty of doubt.
But fervency turns me off; unquestioning belief throws up a flashing warning. A capital “P” patriot, however, is not supposed to question.
The binary choice is ‘America: love it or leave it,’ not ‘America: think about it and get back to me.’
Unquestioning patriotism seems to be the province of the conservative end of the political spectrum. The liberal end is often tangled in doubts, hesitant to salute the flag because they can see the various sins our nation has committed through the fabric.
I was gifted with a set of conservative values and patriotic impulses at birth, whether I recognized it at the time or not. It would be several years before my instinctive patriotism, born of my upbringing, would erode completely. But the thinning of the flag’s fabric, its inability to cover my ever-growing doubts, started early for me.
Drifting away from certainty
My drift from conservatism began the moment I arrived at the hotbed of liberalism known as the University of Idaho (kidding, totally).
It was a slow drift. I immediately began accumulating the checkmarks of a patriot. I attended college on an Army ROTC scholarship and before graduation, I had already started an impressive badge collection: Air Assault and Airborne schools, Northern Warfare training, even Ranger School. 3
Serving in the military has been one of my proudest accomplishments and a huge influence in my life. I’d never undo those experiences. Still…
I vividly recall a conversation with another dorm resident. Pointing at a poster of an attack helicopter, he shouted:
“That’s a killing machine! That’s its entire purpose! Is that what you’re signing up for?”
I had no answer, having hung the poster only because I thought it looked cool. I liked the organized approach of the military. The work was efficient (usually) and gave me a sense of purpose. But the seeds of doubt about my role in enforcing the will of America had been planted and even begun to sprout a little. Shades of gray had started to appear, where before I’d seen only red, white, and blue.
Testing, fears, and doubts
Doubts are a form of testing. People hate tests for a simple reason: tests often produce evidence of weakness.
Thus, most people cannot tolerate doubts about deeply-held beliefs. They fear that their beliefs are not strong enough to withstand testing, that fractures will appear in the foundation upon which they have built their lives. And once the foundation starts to go, anything built on it will soon crumble.
We all have doubts. It’s our reaction to them that defines us. Some double down, expunging their doubts with fervent rhetoric. Others…just walk away, abandoning a belief system because it lacks perfection.
The first approach results in a fragile, unsupported shell of conviction; a knee-jerk patriotism that maintains American ideals will crumble if exposed to questioning or differences of opinion.
But the second approach is more damaging because it cedes influence. Like a religion slowly morphing into a cult, leaving the conversation altogether allows a perversion of an ideal to grow and flourish.
Walking away from patriotism, like so many of my fellow liberals have done, has allowed America to become exceptional for all the wrong reasons.The definition of patriotism is too important to be left to those who are shouting the loudest. Click To Tweet
In the temple of patriotism
Moving into the closed community of the military was an easy transition from my structured life in college. My doubts faded into the background, for a time; it’s much easier to be an unthinking patriot when you are surrounded by a rigorously patriotic system.4
Case in point: the rituals of raising and lowering the flag.
Most Americans see a flag flying and don’t think at all about how it got to the top of the pole. “Getting it to the top of the pole” (and back down) is a huge deal on a military base. Time stops twice a day as the flag is honored.
When one of my Infantry squads was assigned to flag-raising duty at Fort Riley, Kansas, I always went to watch. At 6:30 a.m., they fired a cannon and briskly raised the colors to the sound of “Reveille” played over the base loudspeakers. At 5:00 p.m., they slowly lowered the flag to the sound of “Retreat,” followed by “To the Colors.”
Movement stopped during these ceremonies. Cars pulled to the side of the road. Soldiers got out and saluted. Civilians stood respectfully.
It’s a frankly beautiful thing from a distance, and moving even if you are privy to the nervousness of soldiers performing it for the first time as their sergeant mutters instructions under his breath.
And “Taps,” played at 10:00 p.m., pierced my heart every night, as it still does today.
From Fort Riley, I moved to the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington. The unchanging traditions of respect to the flag were a welcome anchor for a family in transition.
A military installation is to patriotism like a temple is to religion: Inside the structure, surrounded by the symbols and rituals, it’s easy to adhere to the belief system. But, outside the structure, you come face-to-face with painful, ugly, hard-to-reconcile reality.
The ends, the means, and patriotic justification
The reality of America’s impact on the citizens of the world – including its own citizens – is decidedly mixed. An honest review of the evidence can lead to no other conclusion.
“Well, you have to break some eggs if you want to make an omelet.”
Yes, you do. Or more accurately, you will, whether you intend to or not. The vast machinery of the most powerful nation in history is not a precision instrument; it’s more bulldozer than laser scalpel. When this machinery is set in motion, eggs – people – will be broken, some intentionally, some unintentionally. It’s the nature of government, magnified by our position in the world.
Balanced, of course, by the almost limitless capacity for positive impact. But positive intent does not console the broken eggs:
- Native Americans forced onto reservations
- Africans pressed into lifelong, multi-generational slavery
- American coal miners slaughtered by American soldiers
- Filipino civilians devastated during the putdown of an insurrection
And more recently:
- Middle Eastern civilians, including women and children killed by U.S.-led forces
Our government is not unique. Paleolithic tribes, Egyptian dynasties, Mayan kingdoms, the British Empire…all used power to crush those who were inconvenient to their interests, or who were merely in the way.
And patriotic symbolism is the balm that soothes our conscience and blurs our ability to see the consequences.
I have experienced the tremendous welling in my heart and the tears in my eyes that come from an intense love of country, from the sight of a flag flying over a monument or the soulful sound of taps at a military funeral. It can be overpowering.
The feeling is almost religious. It triggers a deep-seated, evolved drive to be part of the winning tribe, and to brook no criticism of tribal action. It hardens your resolve to push forward with your agenda, no matter the cost; if a person can’t tolerate some broken eggs, then they have no business being in the kitchen. Leave the hard decisions to those who aren’t so squeamish.
I became increasingly squeamish. The seeds of doubt planted in college had grown into small trees, at least. I was still a conservative, but no longer an unquestioning one.
As I left the Ranger Battalion for civilian life, I maintained my respect for the symbols of patriotism, but my heart was no longer in it. There was a final parachute jump, a drop-zone promotion to Captain, then I processed out to begin the next phase of my life.
Video: My last parachute jump and promotion
3 minutes, 19 seconds
The break from my past
I quit displaying the flag much after I left the Army. Years passed with only occasional patriotic impulses until I became a Scout leader for 14 years.5
I burned many flags. Never in protest, but during retirement ceremonies for worn out flags. Due to my military experience, I recognized the power of the symbols of patriotism and, frankly, used them for emotional effect and dramatic impact. To any observer, I was the quintessential, unquestioning patriot.
But I was going through the motions. I didn’t disbelieve in the American enterprise, I just didn’t truly believe.
My conservative impulses withered. My unthinking support of the GOP agenda turned to begrudging support. I voted Republican through the second President Bush and I supported the beginning of the Iraq War. But my enthusiasm increasingly waned as my eyes were opened to social justice issues that had escaped my notice for decades:
- Scapegoating and incarceration of the poor
- Misogyny as a baked-in feature of society
- Demonization of my LGBT family members
- Barely-concealed racism
For most of my life, national security would have overridden any of these concerns. To the extent that I thought about them at all, I would have shrugged away their relevance when compared to issues playing out on the world stage. But as American overseas adventurism unraveled, I began to see that it was all part of the same package: control and dominance, a crushing of individual rights under the pretext of serving the greater good.
The tally of strikes against Republicans added up in my mind. Conservatism and I parted ways as the right veered harder to the right and I drifted leftward.
The flag slipped from my grasp. As I had done my entire life, I conflated patriotism with conservatism. It seemed an all-or-nothing, flag-wrapped parcel; if you want the patriotism, you have to hold your nose and take everything else, too.
When I walked away, my patriotism was on life support. The conflict between ideals and reality seemed irreconcilable. The seeds of doubt, planted so long ago in college, had finally yielded their full harvest of complex, vexing questions.
But I didn’t stop thinking about it. The conviction that all questions, even difficult ones, have answers is one of the defining characteristics – or curses – of my life.
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Patriotism and perfectionism
A personal question:
How do you live with yourself, given the mistakes you’ve made in your life? Like me, you’ve told lies big and small, cheated to benefit yourself, and disparaged others to prop up your own self-esteem. Yet you don’t hate the image in your mirror, even though it reflects something less than a saint.
So: How much perfection should we expect from other people? More or less than we expect from ourselves?
Another personal question:
Why do you stand by your family, with all their infighting, acrimony, conflicting agendas, and emotional drama? You’d be justified in excommunicating yourself. But you don’t. You continue to engage.
A democracy is nothing more than the individual will of its citizens brought to life. A massive, messy conglomeration of intentions good and bad, of agendas both enlightened and evil, shambling toward its destiny. Sort of like your family…and you.
I had a perfectionism problem. Learning to love your country is an exercise in learning to live with cognitive dissonance, of learning to see potential and even positive intent behind actions that, on the surface, appear unforgivable.Nothing is perfect in this mortal world and it’s juvenile to expect it of our country. Click To Tweet
Patriotism on life support is near death, but it’s not dead. I had walked away from the unthinking patriotism I grew up with, so I had to rebuild my feelings for my country from the ground up. I began to appreciate the larger intent rather than focusing on individual actions. It wasn’t easy, but monumental tasks never are.
Over time, I arrived at a full appreciation of the potential of America. But I wasn’t ready to sing a tune of full-throated patriotism. Not yet.
And then came November 8, 2016.
Retaking my heritage
Unconsciously, I had traveled the same path of doubt, abandonment, and reconciliation that others – with much more at stake – had traveled before.
Who was I to dismiss the meaning of our flag so easily, when Americans of Japanese descent volunteered to fight for their country overseas in World War II…while their families were imprisoned at home?
Who was I to abandon my love of country because of a few doubts, when civil rights leaders looked centuries of systemic murder in the face…and marched to transform America anyway?
I had to concede that I’d been weak of heart. I had taken for granted an invaluable birthright as if such a gift should require no hard work at all.
I had assumed that American progressive values were advancing resolutely. Increasing liberalization had seemed like a big a ship with so much inertia that it couldn’t be turned from its predestined course, no matter how many pirates tried to board it and take it over. How could I, who had seen so much, served so much, and pondered every angle, be so wrong?
My eyes were fully opened when a white nationalist cabal grabbed the levers of power, and an entire political party not only stood by while it unfolded, but cheered it on.
“How could this have happened?” I asked myself. But I knew the answer because I’d experienced it first-hand. There were many trials in Ranger School, but one of the hardest challenges was simply staying awake.
Exhaustion from endless missions and reduced rations caused Ranger students to fall asleep anytime they stopped moving (and often while still walking). Putting a solder in a position to watch for (simulated) enemies approaching out of the darkness rarely worked since the first task of a sentry is to stay awake.
Those of us on the left have been asleep on watch for far too long, while all around us, unnoticed, schemes that were developed in the darkness slowly came to fruition in broad daylight.
Worse, we’ve assumed that even taking a turn on watch wasn’t necessary, that our ideals are so self-evidently correct that the country will inevitably come around to our way of thinking; demographic destiny and all that.
When I realized how the party of Lincoln had twisted patriotism to their own ends while people like me looked away, I was filled with shame:
- Shame over my role in allowing a vocal, bullying minority to co-opt the symbols of our country into a thin cover for an anti-American, inhuman, corrupting agenda.
- Shame over my role in allowing a country to become so fearful of the world that we sought to exclude all “others” who might threaten our fragile egos.
- Shame over allowing women and men who had mouthed an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, to wave the flag to distract from treason, both witting and unwitting.
My reservations about the exceptionalism of America are not diminished, but I’ve learned it no longer matters. Doubts give rise to questions, questions lead to answers, answers lead to convictions.
And convictions give us the power to move forward in spite of our lingering doubts.
The current generation always has the potential to be the greatest generation…if they care enough to try.
A battle for the soul of America
Like a light shown on a burglar, the first step is exposing the crime.
The good news is that nothing important has been stolen. Yet. The structure of America remains; the fabric of its institutions is frayed but intact.
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
~ Samuel Johnson
The dying struggles of an ideology are not a pleasant thing to watch. The end is ugly and dangerous. And the radicalized right is dying; it’s been backed into a demographic corner and is fighting like a wildcat to survive. No one should be surprised that they have grasped at all available tactics:
- misguided patriotism
- voter suppression
- immigrant demonization
All are justifiable weapons when you’ve got nothing left to lose.Cornered animals don’t back down. They fight. Cornered humans don’t back down. They fight dirty. Click To Tweet
But make no mistake: it is the end of the far right, and quite likely a big chunk of the middle-right as well. Our society is inexorably liberalizing, diversifying, and accepting differences. The signs are all around and quite visible unless you’re looking through sepia-toned glasses.
You don’t tangle with a cornered ideology. You build an electoral wall around it so it can’t hurt anyone and let it fade away.
I couldn’t imagine a positive side to defeat. But the reflexive, progressive reaction has shown me a side of America that I would have never dared to hope existed. Strength grows when individuals find connections, when connections reinforce purpose, when purpose drives an agenda.
The stress-testing of America has commenced. But that’s OK; we’re ready.
Joining the resistance
As with the American dream, there is a role to play for everyone, of any age. Those of us with decades of memories, 6 who have experienced the unifying force of shared goals and common purpose, can’t leave this fight to the young and energetic. Their future is our shared destiny, and we must show by example that we care more about them than our own selfish needs.
With liberty and justice for all.
~ Every American who ever attended grade school
Someday, a sane, conservative replacement for the GOP will emerge to engage in substantive, fact-based (and treason-free) policy debates. I look forward to that. In the meantime, progressives must be ready to lead with a positive agenda. The demographic impact on the Republican Party can be delayed, but not derailed. We’ll be in charge, and we had better figure out what we stand for because our vision will shape the America of tomorrow.
Taking a stand means first standing up for what you believe in. My writing is my contribution, the role I can play to greatest effect. Introversion makes me avoid marching and group protests, but I can publicly abandon neutrality and decades of striving never to give offense. I can cast my lot with the new rebellion.
At the end of it all, I’m still a reluctant patriot. But now I know: that’s the best kind to be.
Until next time…remember the OverExamined Life motto: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.