[Since this is the last year my son will be at home with us before leaving us (we are assuming) for college somewhere in the fall of 2009, I have found myself ruminating over things I might feel a need and want to tell him before he goes away to live the rest of his life. He may currently find such little "talks" to be annoying lectures, and so they are--but I thought I'd start sharing them here for the rest of you. Since that's just what I do.]
Patriotism is the love of your country.
I know, having once been one, that as a teenager, an actual love of your country can only seem a very abstract subject and is probably a matter of very minor concern in your everyday life right now. Somehow it is tied to rambling off The Pledge before every school day, displaying our flag, and getting hold of some interesting firecrackers on the Fourth. Other loves loom larger, and will for a long time to come. In fact, it is a joyous thing to us, your parents, that you are young and free to choose to follow your own passions and make your own future however you wish, with patriotism being but a small footnote in your present outlook.*
In college, you may be persuaded to think that patriotism is even downright uncool, or in some way chauvinistic. Such views and much cynicism and anti-Americanism in general are often espoused by certain segments of students and faculty and have been an overt part of the American college campus experience since the 1960’s and the Vietnam War. So don’t be shocked when you encounter it. Study such people and their views, reasoning, methods, motivations, and their lives closely and learn all you can while you have the chance.
But as you grow older I hope you will also educate yourself to realize the full extent to which almost all of your personal freedoms—to choose, to try, to fail, succeed, to protest, or just survive comfortably or uncomfortably; to stand out or to just be left alone—are not the result of a natural state of things. No, life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes said in Leviathan in 1651 (and as I read in The American Spectator in the late 1970’s). You can still see plenty of examples of this tragic reality playing out eternally around the world, where might equals right, conditions are harsh, there is little equality or justice, and life is definitely shown to be “not fair.” Your studies of the Bible and the ancient Greeks and Romans and other societies confirm the universality of raw human nature beneath the veils of various civilizations, and reveal the power and consequences of good and bad ideas. You can begin to appreciate how and why you have been spared from that destiny of the natural, tragic state of human existence.
Your personal freedoms and advantages, material and spiritual, result from the inspired, accumulative and dedicated work of people who loved this country as an ideal worth fighting for and went before you, sacrificing on your behalf for just these very things. That is the undeniable exceptionalism of the United States of America: it was created deliberately to protect your very freedoms and your own pursuit of happiness—recognized and canonized here for the first time on earth as God-given rights for all people. It has been fought and died for, over and over, to be maintained and improved.
I hope you will someday fully understand that America as a great, deliberate experiment in liberty and self-government (“of the people, by the people, for the people”) has succeeded as no other country has before or since—that it has bettered the lives or more people on earth than any other civilization on the planet—and that the ongoing price of this freedom, as Thomas Jefferson said, is eternal vigilance.
That is the burden that patriotism places on every adult American willing and able to accept the responsibility.
Love of our country is love for the stories of our history, ancestors, family, self, and the land. Like all love, it has parts that are ineffable, indefinable, personal, and instinctive, based largely on strong feelings. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s a necessary and good part of loving your country. I feel that when I look at the Grand Canyon, a Civil War battlefield, or other landmarks or national shrines, or when I visit the places of my childhood or other nostalgic emblems of Americana. I feel it when I get home and spot the Stars and Stripes again after traveling outside the U.S.
But in order to love best, you must know what you love very well, good and bad, warts and all. You must make your decisions and your actions toward and in your love as deliberate and as wise as those of our Founding Fathers (or at least as close as you can get, taking them as your models and yes, as the heroes they were). Educate yourself, open your eyes, seek and know the truth and learn about what you wish to love, and you will be most rewarded in return. You will be a necessary part in the chain of generations remembering and writing the ongoing American story.
Now, just for fun, here are a few basic suggestions I would make on how to be a good American:
1. Never miss an opportunity to vote.
My own Grandmas, both of whom I knew very well, were 14 and 30 years old before women were given the right to vote in the U.S. by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution signed on August 26, 1920. This realization brings close to me what a precious and novel right voting is. As a woman in particular, I do not take my right to vote lightly. I make it my goal to vote in every election I possibly can, no matter how local or minor. If I do not know much about what is being voted on, it is my responsibility to inform myself and make the decision on how to cast my vote. Elections are not trivial things; they are the bedrock of our democratic republic. Don’t shirk your duty as a citizen here. And don’t ever think we are supposed to be or should be a democracy, either.
2. Don’t duck jury duty.
Same deal here. Again: If not me, then who better? Do your part to keep the justice system functioning. It’s a small price to pay for all the benefits we enjoy.
3. Uphold and abide by the rule of law.
“Play by the rules.” In other countries, maybe it’s just good, practical sense not to get caught breaking the law. Here, the entire country and its government at all levels is based upon codifying our values in the form of laws promising justice for all. America lives or dies by the rule of law, and by how well it works, so do your part. The fact that, on the whole, fraud, bribery, corruption, and abuse are duly and more or less effectively prosecuted by our various levels of government is one of our most overlooked yet most vital national treasures. We enjoy here a common consensus of necessary civility and even morality (although “you can’t legislate morality,” as we are often told, the Founding Fathers knew well that “Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time.”).
Meanwhile "we the people" have the right to express our viewpoints, no matter how contrarian, and to appeal for redress for laws we don’t agree with. Work within the system by exercising your freedoms to ensure that most of our governmental business involves maintaining our nation’s welfare and promise or moving ever closer (we hope) toward its improvement. In the meantime, even if you’re not a Christian or a Jew, cherish your American heritage of Judeo-Christian morality (as expressed in, for one example, the Ten Commandments) and uphold those who express and abide by the same.
In practical terms, and despite annoyances and temptations: Be honest. Don’t cheat on your taxes (“Render unto Caesar…”) or cheat your fellow citizens, don’t accept bribes, don’t do illegal drugs, don’t cut corners illegally, unethically, or immorally in business or in private, don’t take advantage of the weak, the young, or the poor, and don’t be an angry jerk—and you’ll sleep better at night, stay out of jail, and have a clear conscience later on when you’re trying to raise decent kids. Beyond those negatively framed prohibitions, if you really want to express your Judeo-Christian morality (as protected by our Constitution) positively, there are innumerable things you can do in America for your self and family, for your fellow man, your country, and the world. Feel free! Because you are.
4. Don’t dodge your country’s call when your country needs you.
Believe me, as the mother of a son, there are few things I am more grateful for right now than the fact that America has not had a conscription or military draft law since 1973. I have always thought that patriotism, charity, and volunteerism should not be coerced, and that in fact, a better military force can be created through patriotic and willing citizens volunteering to serve as high-quality, well-paid, professional and disciplined soldiers, and that has proven to be the case. But as a member of the generation standing between World War II and the Vietnam War, and now having lived through the succeeding wars in the Middle East, I know a military draft can return at any time if and when our country faces a grave crisis. If my son or if even my daughter—or my husband or I—were needed to fight for the survival of our country or our freedoms, so be it. Millions of ordinary people like us have given the last full measure of devotion for our country since 1776, and millions more have had their lives disrupted by having to wage war. Why should we be any different?
Like everybody else, I would hope me and mine would be able to offer our best (not necessarily military) talents and services to protect and defend our nation. Nobody wants to be hurled into the maw of war as warm bodies or cannon fodder. In times of war, a country needs warriors, and it also needs production workers, managers and support staff, doctors, artists and writers, diplomats and so much more. But we don’t always get to choose those things, especially when war comes. We nowadays have grown so accustomed in America to having so many choices that sometimes we forget what real life and death matters are really like. War cruelly brings that home to people. Only the bravest volunteer to go to war for the rest of us when it is a choice. War is waged without seat belts, without insurance, without justice, guarantees, or civility. (If you’re lucky, you get a little Providential grace.) May war never come to our doorsteps again, as it did in the 1770’s, in 1812, 1861, 1941, and on 9/11. But such a prayer is unrealistic and we know it. War will come again, and when it does, may we be ready to do whatever we can to defend ourselves and our beloved American nation: “the last, best hope of earth.”
5. Pay due honor to those who serve.
I like the quote: “You sleep safe in your beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do you harm.” Thank God for them and for all the generations of these past heroes. Don’t miss an opportunity to offer honor, thanks, and comfort and aid to them and their families.
6. Don't accept government funds unless your kids are starving and your legs are broken, you've been evicted, and....
I know this one's hard to stick to, but it's a rule that's good for your own character as well as good for the nation. This rule really means: Never apply for food stamps, welfare payments, agricultural subsidies, unemployment compensation, artist's grants, ad infinitum. Think of where this "government money" comes from: it comes from poor working slobs like you, only with even less education and advantages, working two jobs, raising five kids (or grandkids)-- they're driving a jalopy, working outdoors with dirty hands, eating beans, and paying too many taxes so that you can rationalize to yourself that you deserve government help while you sit on your butt and take it easier than they've got it.
You've got skills, brains, and advantages--get out and get a job, any job; reduce your expenses, reduce your entitlement attitude, and just get to work to achieve the honorable goal of being self-supporting. Resolve to eat ramen noodles and ride a bike, anything but just stay off the government teat. If you are so far down and out that you need charity, come to your parents, family, friends, or your local church--at least those subsidies are volunteered by the people offering them. Don't take tax monies robbed from other citizens. Of course, you deserve all the tax reductions, deductions, refunds, and rebates you can get; that's your own earned money being returned to you.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I know this is a hard rule to follow. I accepted a full merit-based scholarship ride to the University of California from the State of California back in the 1970's, thereby violating my own principle. I expect you may end up attending college under a similar program. Some folks claim that it is well-nigh impossible these days to live the Ayn Randian ideal and be free of all governmental support in American society as it stands now. So take this rule with a grain of salt, but know that baldly seeking tax-supported government welfare for yourself is not an optimal lifestyle and would probably in fact be unseemly. There is no honor in it. And is it certainly unfair to someone who needs the money more than you ever will--lucky you.)
6. You are an incredibly lucky person just to be an American. Stay grateful, stay classy, and do you best.
Nowhere on earth does the average mere individual wield as much potential power to “make a difference in the world” as in the United States of America. Nowhere in the world does the individual have access to as many rights, opportunities, and choices as in the United States of America.
It’s awesome! Patriotism means celebrating, cherishing, and nurturing that. Being a good American means taking advantage of it wisely in living life, exercising liberties, and pursuing happiness.
So go get smart and be happy.
*John Adams said: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” This progression toward the freedom to immerse oneself in a life of art or a life of the mind or even just more trivial pursuits instead of being forced to devote oneself to the means and methods of sheer survival was seen to have been a good thing by Adams and the other Founding Fathers. I agree, and I am grateful they studied Politicks and War so well for our benefit.
READING: America: The Last Best Hope by William J. Bennett