On the Fourth of July, ask when patriotism became synonymous with selfishness

Real American patriotism should be about supporting each other and showing up to vote for (and be) leaders who take care of all of our communities.
Fireworks explode over the Statue of Liberty on June 30 in New York City.
Fireworks explode over the Statue of Liberty on June 30 in New York City.Gotham / Getty Images
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By Mikki Kendall, author, “Hood Feminism” and "Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists"

What does patriotism really mean to us? We live in a country that professes to love itself, yet it so clearly hates wide swaths of its own citizens, whole sections of its own Constitution, science and the peace it exports elsewhere at gunpoint.

In the wake of the ongoing uprisings sparked by police brutality and systemic racism, every American once again needs to ask themselves whether truly being a patriot requires unquestioning loyalty to a piece of land and a government or an unwavering commitment to making that government live up to the highest ideals expressed in its chartering documents and our shared understanding of what this country is supposed to stand for.

We as a culture often profess to love the flag — until true love for our ideals means allowing marginalized people to fully utilize their First Amendment rights to stand up for issues with which we disagree. We as a people say we stand up for our fellow Americans at all costs, until it requires us to bolster public health by behaving in ways that are mildly inconvenient. We recite that this is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and yet many Americans support the systematic disenfranchisement of many of “the people” because they fear those Americans vote for a different party’s politicians.

But then, stolen lands worked by stolen people are not conducive to the myth of the United States that we like to tell ourselves, even if they are the perfect places to highlight the lies that a country rooted in oppression can tell itself with a straight face.

The America that balked at a football player using his First Amendment rights to protest the extrajudicial abuses and murders of Black and brown people — calling it disrespectful to the flag, a disservice to veterans who served and fought under that flag — would of course ignore that Black veterans are among those unjustly killed by police and immigrant veterans face deportation after they serve this country.

Patriotism, you see, apparently stops meaning quite so much when it might involve protecting veterans who are not white.

At every turn, it seems that “making America great” has really meant making marginalized people suffer even more for the perceived sin of not being white, for the perceived sin of needing their oppression to stop and for the perceived sin of seeking a safer place to go with their families. America has gone from being a country that paid lip service welcoming those in search of a better life to a country that actively refuses asylum to people who most need help.

Until recently, patriotism hasn’t meant selfishness; now it rejects selflessness as unpatriotic. Witness the willingness of many to sacrifice their fellow Americans’ health to avoid having to give up even one iota of personal comfort, demanding that workers put themselves and their families at risk to give haircuts or wait tables or clean homes, often to people who refuse to wear masks as a gesture of basic courtesy. We aren’t asking those people to risk death to fight an enemy abroad, let alone a foreign invader. We are demanding that they provide services to people here — including some who proclaim themselves to be “Real Americans,” as though anyone who doesn’t believe what they do is something else.

But I guess a country that values access to guns over children’s lives so often that the response to what was, pre-pandemic, near-daily mass shootings is “thoughts and prayers” instead of gun control doesn’t really have any pride left in itself.

A country with decades of data on the harm that hunger does to people and communities that then lets its own people go hungry — including veterans and their families, who are among those expected to be the hardest hit by current and proposed cuts in food assistance — isn’t a country that loves itself.

And a country in which people applaud while politicians repeatedly try to restrict access to health insurance and thus health care in the middle of an out-of-control pandemic is not a country that values itself — let alone its veterans, when more and more service members and veterans are being diagnosed with COVID-19. When the politicians who should be offering guidance and help to the people are instead largely focused on helping the economy despite the increased risks to the people, telling us that it is for our own good, that is not a nation dedicated to serving the people “that shall not perish from the earth,” but one that is at risk of perishing.

Patriotism has to be more than obsequious adherence to a tortured myth; it cannot just be loving a country that doesn’t love you (or anyone else) back. In order for patriotism to have any real meaning, being patriotic has to involve more than flags (or flag apparel) or support for individual politicians. Real American patriotism is about supporting each other and looking out for each other with more than just slogans and memes. It is showing up to vote in — and be — the kinds of leaders who take care of all of our communities, who prioritize people over arbitrary borders or inane ideas about respecting objects.

The most patriotic thing anyone can do in America is try to make it a better place for everyone and not just you. At the very least, having a modicum of real patriotism would mean acknowledging just how un-American it is to try to make our nation a terrible place for most people and a great place for fascists.