Aside from picnics and fireworks, what the approach of the July 4th Independence Day holiday brings to mind more than anything is probably the notion of patriotism. Is it, as seems to be the common wisdom, merely a concept which lauds an expected, deep respect and unconditional love for country, or is that today more of an outmoded mindset, an excuse for exclusion, leading to a xenophobic mine-verses-theirs mentality that poisons the welcoming of whatever, or whoever, may be foreign or different? Or is it somewhere in between?
The word “patriotic” itself comes from the Latin “patris,” which is the genitive singular form of “pater,” meaning “of the father.” Some countries – Germany comes to mine – have traditionally referred to themselves in the masculine, as in the Fatherland, while others appear to prefer the feminine. Russians, for example, almost universally reference Mother Russia, and even in the United States, we often feminize reference to the country (see, for example, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America/Land that I love/Stand beside her and guide her etc.). In French, ambiguously, “la patrie” is a feminine noun, although it is usually translated as Fatherland (note that it has the same masculine Latinate root as the English term).
But whether we envision the notion as of one gender or another in the end may make little difference. For most people, the impact of patriotism comes from much the same place as that of the camaraderie felt by soldiers who go into battle together. On the level of feeling, rather than of intellectual discourse, we are talking quite literally about where we come from, who is there to support us, and what that means for us now, in the moment. In time of war, while facing grave danger, with possible imminent loss of life or limb, what is most important is not the latest camouflage, or protective gear, or even weaponry; it’s whether or not you can count on “your brothers” (and in recent times, “sisters” as well), who are with you to support and protect you, as you support and protect them. “I’ve got your back” is not a term taken lightly under such circumstances. Neither is it for many people when it comes to one’s country as a whole.
What do you think of when you hear the word patriotism? Is it the flag, per se, or is it what that represents to any individual, the story of his or her life, a whole host of memories, of people, of events, of scenes, of sights and sounds, and smells and food, of play and contention, of life and death, and of loved ones longed for but no longer here, of war or peace, of danger or of carefree togetherness, whether all this took place in upstate New York, or California, or the American South, or France, or Russia, or Syria, or the Sudan.
Each individual has his and her own story to tell. My own started almost 70 years ago in upstate New York. Born to a father who was a factory worker and a mother employed as a saleslady in a local department store, we struggled through a life with its own degree of poverty and deprivation. Money seldom lasted all the way to the next payday, and meals approaching that day were often meager and unappealing. New clothes were a distant thought, a luxury for those with money, and doctors or dentists were professionals you saw only when the pain or discomfort was no longer bearable. And no one took what is now thought of as a vacation. In the summer, my father would get a week off, which he spent making repairs on the cold-water flat we lived in. And while I felt myself to be poor, even compared to my friends whom I went to school with, the truth is that no one I knew had any surplus money to spare.
And yet, there was family, as dysfunctional as my own often was, and friends, and other kids to play with, and the Church, Catholic in my case, that provided a kind of moral gravitational pull all its own. Later I came to see it as oppressive, repressive, and even damaging, but as a child I accepted it as a given, and for a while it provided me with a kind of empowering personal nexus.
We can all recount our own such stories which, while differing in every possible detail, carry with them the same profundity of emotional tether and draw. This is because the essentials of the story, of every story, remain the same. There is a place, a setting, a cast of characters, a drama and a plot of sorts, and even whole themes that run through a person’s life. All of the specifics add up to your own unique history, your own depiction, your own version of the greater story that happens to all of us, and it is the individual aspects of that saga that amount to the glue that holds together the idea of what we think of as patriotism.
When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I remember going to a 4th of July parade in the town of Poestenkill, New York. It’s more of a rustic hamlet than a town, with barely 4,500 people in it today, and no doubt a lot fewer back in the early 50’s. It’s located some 25 to 30 miles from the state capital of Albany. My grandmother, whose husband was a French-Canadian baseball player who had abandoned her soon after my mother’s birth, had a kind of boyfriend who came from Poestenkill, and we were visiting some of his relatives there. My recollection of the parade consists mostly of the town fire truck, a few local notables walking in their Sunday best, and a marching band consisting of no more than a dozen players. Later on, there was a picnic with hotdogs and potato salad. I still remember my brother, ever the daring adventurer, throwing a stone at a bird, By some stroke of chance or ill luck, he hit the creature. It was able to limp away, but I felt terrible about it for the rest of the day, and would not speak to him. When we got home, and it had finally gotten dark that evening around 9:30, there were sparklers. I dropped mine, and it went out. In the darkness, I reached and picked up the wrong end, and in so doing burnt my hand; payback, I thought even then, as someone in the family had to atone for the injury done to an innocent bird.
These are the kinds of memories that come to mind for me when people speak of patriotism. The childhood ties that bind you to the land, to the people, and to what happened there. This, and not some concocted idea of abstract pride in a nation, is what evokes feelings for a Motherland or a Fatherland.
As adults, the notion seems somehow less compelling, less riveting, more theoretical and conceptual. Too often these days, the 4th seems like just another excuse for a party, for drinking, and making noise late into the night, when I, at least, would prefer to be in bed asleep. We were in France a few years ago on Bastille Day, the 14th of July, and it felt like much the same thing. But maybe that was because we were in a Paris, and not in “un petit patelin,” the French equivalent of Poestenkill. Crowds and loud music and drunks and fireworks bigger and better than last year’s are not my notion of what makes for patriotism.
I see no reason not to love the land you come from, so long as it never leads to disdain for or hatred of other people or places. Every land, and every people, has its uniqueness, its own special beauty. At least so long as that land, or more specifically the people living there, have treated you decently. Some, unfortunately, have horrible memories of a dangerous and degrading past, and these are the people who need new ties that bind, and hopefully they are lucky enough to escape to a place of relative safety and freedom. Those new and better experiences then become their patriotic remembrances.
But for most of us, notions of patriotism are benign enough, and we are able to distinguish it from the overly aggressive jingoism and chauvinistic flag-waving that speaks of nothing so much as a limited worldview. In the end, it’s more about family, and childhood, and loved ones, and good and bad times, trials and joys, the effort it takes to grow up and to mature, all in a specific place and time in history, in a setting that comes to mean more than merely what it looks like. Place eventually takes on an emotional value all its own, a connectivity to feeling and sentiment, to love and loss, and to hope for a better future yet to come. That’s what I’ll think of, anyway, when I hear the word this holiday. And that’s what I will mean when I wish one and all a Happy 4th of July!