On a beautiful September morning sixteen years ago, my German 3 students and I together heard news of the attacks in New York. We stumbled through the rest of a day that further unfolded at the Pentagon and in a field in Shanksville.
Even as I struggled to process the events of that day, I felt Americans coming together in a show of solidarity, the likes of which I had never experienced. We linked sad and frightened hearts, comforted one another, and moved forward together.
Unfortunately, we have left that sense of common purpose far behind. Now defining ourselves by the red or blue of our states, we seem unable to find points of agreement, allowing ourselves instead to magnify our differences.
Unbelievably, the latest topic causing continued polarization of the national conversation is that of patriotism. Really? We are arguing about who is patriotic and who is unpatriotic – at the very time when millions of our fellow citizens victimized by a trifecta of hurricanes are in dire need of our help?
To me, the current controversy about pregame behavior at football games is a flawed comparison. Those standing are using their First Amendment right to express respect for the country, choosing not to register concern about national problems in a stadium venue. Those kneeling are using their First Amendment right to express concern for problems they consider serious, meaning no disrespect to the veterans often remembered in such moments.
To explore this dichotomy, I am following Adlai Stevenson’s definition: “Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” I feel the need to consider examples of support for, devotion to, and love of country on the other six days of the week: our “steady dedication” to our nation beyond the waving flags and strains of our National Anthem.
Many of us honor America by working to improve the lives of others – including but not limited to members of our military who put themselves in harm’s way, first responders, medical and mental health professionals, educators. But 4-H advisors and Scout leaders, builders of Habitat for Humanity homes, organizers of community pantries and meals, neighbors who mow lawns and shovel snow for those who cannot – in short, all who volunteer time to benefit others are most certainly demonstrating love of country.
There is also the “steady dedication” of those who go to work every day and pay their taxes as well as those engaged in all forms of public service – jury duty, committee and board membership, elected office. Contribution to our nation’s economy and willingness to serve are essential underpinnings upon which our nation rests.
However, we can do more: we can refamiliarize ourselves with the national documents outlining our beginnings, our structure, our rights, our responsibilities. Yes, we were exposed to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in our teens – when we knew everything and understood very little.
In my current process of helping an individual prepare for the citizenship test, I am rereading our founding documents. I recommend it for everyone, this completely different experience involving the original words instead of a politically-motivated condensed version.
Too, I regularly push myself to think and to research – rather than relying on a Facebook post or some claim in a political ad. Nothing strengthens our country more than an electorate voting from a point of information and education rather than buzzwords and emotions.
And I believe we must understand the nature of protest. Protests interrupt the traditional flow of order to call attention to serious issues. We the People of the United States need not wait for politicians to define our problems. We the People of the United States have the right to actively point them out – as did the colonists who dumped tea into Boston Harbor; as did the suffragettes who picketed the White House; as did protesters on college campuses, amid sit-ins and marches against the Vietnam war; as did Rosa Parks when she refused to give up her seat on the bus.
Last week I read about a soldier who battled the Communists in Vietnam, whose father fought the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, whose son received the Bronze Star in his fight against the Taliban. This veteran observed that all three enemies, years apart, stifled free speech and thus determined his family’s willingness to serve so that “ALL Americans could exercise their right to peacefully protest injustice.”
There is another aspect of devotion to and support of one’s country: loyalty. It is tempting and may even seem successful in the short term to expect, demand, or require a demonstration of loyalty. I cannot, however, forget my visits to Holocaust memorials in three countries, where I observed the tragic consequences of enforced loyalty – complete with mandatory salutes and slogans.
And so we scrutinize and debate the actions of a group of men during a three-minute period on one day of the week, not even knowing if viewers on couches across the country are standing or kneeling during those same three minutes. Rather than measuring someone else’s level of love for our country, I hope each of us can use the remaining 10,077 minutes of the week to strengthen our own “steady dedication” to America, the country that protects our fundamental right to individual freedom of expression.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.