Patriotism is defined as a deep love and devoted defense of one’s country. The term is also referred to as national loyalty, allegiance, and public spirit.
In the United States, we even take this one step further, coining the term Americanism for the preference of the United States and all of its institutions. As far as I can tell, this kind of specific patriotism is unique to America. I, for one, have never heard anyone say Italianism, Canadianism, Australianism, Zimbabweism, or the like.
We typically define Americanism by sarcastically pointing out things that are un-American, such as tiny cars, homes without air-conditioning, television sets smaller than forty inches; the list goes on. But what is the true, deep essence of Americanism?
If you were to ask random people on the street, most would probably say that America is about freedom, both bestowing it and celebrating it. Many may also mention Christianity as the reigning moral compass. Others would describe America as the land of opportunity and say that you have the right to be who you truly are in this country. American pride is often seen as the driving force behind justice, equality, civil rights, and, above all, freedom.
However, throughout history citizens have done terrible things to each other in the name of American pride:
- During the American Revolution, patriots tarred, feathered, and otherwise violently attacked and intimidated Tories who chose to remain loyal to Britain, even though they were fighting the spread of tyranny.
- When the Ku Klux Klan reformed less than one hundred years ago, its members flogged and lynched countless innocents while adhering to the organization’s new, simple slogan of “100 percent Americanism.”
- In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings sparked the far-reaching Communist witch hunt, which resulted in thousands of people being blacklisted and losing their jobs and homes. Hundreds of filmmakers, writers, and actors were erased from history books, while businesses across the country went under because of suspected, and often imagined, subversive activity.
- During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, hate groups brutally assaulted and even lynched nonviolent activists who were trying to expose unjust Jim Crow laws.
- In the days following the September 11th terrorist attacks, hate crimes against Muslims across the country increased and included vandalism, arson, assault, harassment, shootings, and even murder.
Many of these events may seem to have taken place too long ago to still be relevant, but their legacies remain. Remnants of the Ku Klux Klan live on in the doctrines of other white supremacist groups, the Civil Rights movement took place within my parents’ lifetimes, and just last year protesters opposed Park 51, a multi-faith community center close to ground zero in New York City because it included a Muslim mosque. Clearly, these feelings haven’t disappeared completely in the nearly two and a half centuries since the end of the Revolutionary War.
Pride in your country is a great thing, but when patriotism manifests in the form of hate crimes or riots, we tend to forget about freedom. We fail to remember that when a gay person is assaulted, his or her attacker is denying his or her right to self-expression. When a mosque is bombed, its inhabitants are denied their right to the free exercise of religion. When we live in a country known for advocating freedom but deny the full extent of it to our own citizens inside our own borders, we become hypocrites. As it turns out, intolerance is one of the most un-American activities in practice.
In the United States, we seem to subscribe to the idea of freedom with an asterisk. We celebrate civil rights, but qualify them with silent and invisible clauses. For example:
- You are free to believe whatever you want; as long as I believe it, too.
- You can say whatever you like; as long as I was already thinking it.
- You can give me new ideas; as long as they are extensions of ideals I already had.
- You can be the person you want to be; as long as it is the person I want you to be.
This fine print style of freedom is not freedom at all. It’s pigeonholing and it doesn’t work. As Americans, we cannot offer the freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition and then attack someone for using them in a way some may deem un-American. The First Amendment is not the summer camp talking-stick of Constitutional law; it does not exist only for the person holding it at the time.
We live in a society that is increasingly reliant on the development of new ideas and connections on a larger scale. The internet and social media put us in contact with the entire world with just a few clicks, the economy has become more global, and many cultures are meeting each other head on. If we cannot accept each other within America’s fifty states, we cannot hope to succeed in the world as a whole.
The diverse demographic groups across the United States make this country’s culture a rich one, and the fact that there are so many dynamic viewpoints only serves to further enhance our lives. However, we must be able to allow the free exchange of ideas and the free celebration of individuality without the fear of abusive retaliation. When patriotism becomes intolerance, everyone loses.