Patriotism in the Twenty-first Century
July 6, 2001
When I was a little girl my Illinois grandfather bought Roman Candles
and skyrockets and loud firecrackers on the 4th of July, and the two of
us endangered all the houses in south Englewood. I probably didn't
know what the day stood for, but it was sure exciting.
Some years later I celebrated another Fourth by watching George M. Cohan
in "I'd Rather Be Right." The audience stood and cheered with patriotic
fervor when Cohan sang, "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy/ A Yankee Doodle do
or die/ A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam/ Born on the fourth of
July." Our patriotism was probably encouraged by the fact that second
gallery seats in the Auditorium Theater in Chicago in 1938 cost 55
The symbols of the 4th of July -- the flag, the stirring music, the
speeches which were so moving, assured us that our world was going to
be here forever without change.
After all, the war to end wars, the last of the "pure" wars, had been
fought and won. Justice had prevailed and we had made the world safe
for democracy. Patriotism was clear in its meaning and nobody
questioned it. It meant our country right or wrong, that we were
invincible, we were right.
Since then, there has been a major world war in which more than 400,000
Americans of my generation died. There was a "police action" in Korea
that killed over 50,000 and a war in Vietnam which killed 60,000 of our
sons and daughters. And there was Hiroshima.
There was the social revolution of the sixties, and there was the coming
of the World Wide Web which weaves the world together in a whole new
way. As a nation we are no longer protected by oceans. We are no
longer isolated. We have become a highly diverse people with citizens
of many colors and beliefs. We have worldwide obligations.
Last week I celebrated the Fourth again. I rode shotgun in the Public
Library van in the local June 30th parade. We led the famous Library
Lawn Chair Brigade. The crowd was enthusiastic, children waved and lots
of people sat on the curb when the flag went by. It is still exciting
But patriotism had a different definition now -- equally strong, but
Old style traditional patriotism has become our security blanket in a
world too frightening to face.
In the 21st century, patriotism has a different definition. Adlai
Stevenson saw it coming way back in 1952 when he said , "What do we mean
by patriotism? in the context of our times, I venture to suggest that
what we mean is a sense of national responsibility . . . a patriotism
which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and
steady dedication of a lifetime."
Today patriotism is more complex than waving a flag. It means tolerance
and understanding and acceptance. It means that we all have an
obligation to defend our form of government, to make it work and to make
it last. It means that we have freedoms unknown in most parts of the
world and we must defend them. It means that we have the freedom to
disagree with each other and to speak freely. It means that we can
protest peacefully and yell and shout if we want to.
Maybe it even means what Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, "Dissent, rebellion,
and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots."
The Fourth of July is the day to read and re-read, "We hold these truths
to be self evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among
these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Those wonderful
words are as true today as they were the day they were written.
My granddad would have loved the spectacular fireworks display on the
Fourth of July. My friend the philosopher summed it up. "Patriotism
means loving and respecting our own land, but not fearing and hating