Opinion: On patriotism

Patrick Semansky / AP file

Patrick Semansky / AP file Patrick Semansky / AP file

By STUART A. GREEN

Published: 11-27-2023 7:10 AM

Stuart A. Green is a retired U.S. Navy commander and former town moderator for Andover.

I was privileged to serve as a career officer in the U.S. Navy, where men and women of all ethnic backgrounds and political persuasions worked together in defense of our nation. Before any other identity, we were Americans and we had each other’s backs. We formed lifelong bonds that cared little for partisan, religious, or ethnic differences, and we were proud to be part of a storied tradition.

But in the years since, I have been distressed to see great division. Perhaps I was too busy or sheltered to notice the changes as they unfolded. What I see now is that we stand at a precipice, a crisis of national conscience, possibly on the verge of something terrible. But Winston Churchill once said, perhaps apocryphally, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We must pull back. Reconsidering the importance of patriotism, our common story, and love for our fellow citizens may help.

Though critics inevitably, and not incorrectly, point out how we have fallen short of or betrayed our own ideals at times, it cannot be denied that the American Revolution was one of the first and most powerful incarnations of the Enlightenment we take for granted today. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that gave birth to, or greatly expanded, concepts like reason, constitutional government, liberty, and equality, to name a few. These are the ideas that gave life to the United States, and they are the reason for our extraordinary advancements in science, human rights, material wealth, and our spirited, generally peaceful public discourse. Our flag is meant to embody these ideals. It is an aspirational, unifying symbol that suggests if we can agree on anything, it is our foundational principles and that we have one another’s backs in difficult times.

Yet extremists on both sides have lost this moral bearing. If I may generalize, the sin of today’s far right is the mistaken belief that “there are Americans and there are Democrats,” and only Republicans have the moral authority to wave the flag. It is a ridiculous notion that no doubt sits poorly with my politically diverse brothers and sisters in arms. It is a mentality linked to weaponized or performative patriotism, seen in confrontational, garish displays, an angry desire to “own” or gleefully “rip” those insufficiently like-minded, and it is exclusive rather than inclusive. It abandons one of the chief qualities that made the United States so extraordinary — our ability to look inward, reflect on, and address our problems. Worst of all, it unilaterally claims “truth” while making enemies of neighbors.

The far left’s sin is no less destructive. It is the willingness to forfeit the flag entirely in a misguided belief that patriotism itself is little more than an expression of imperialist oppression, jingoism, or systemic racism. In these quarters, Enlightenment ideals like equality are not just elusive, they are part of the problem. The proposed remedy is essentially to abandon the American experiment, put discrimination under new management, and frame every problem in terms of identity, perennially dividing us as “oppressors” and “oppressed.” It is an equally exclusive mentality masquerading as tolerance, and like its far-right counterpart, it has made enemies of neighbors.

All of this is wrong.

The flag belongs to every one of us. Every American can and should claim it, be they Texan, Hawaiian, Alaskan, or New Hampshirite, but there are no individuals or movements of any kind that may claim it for themselves alone. It is apolitical, no more emblematic of the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party, the Whig Party, the Know Nothing Party, the Bull Moose Party, or the Federalist Party. The flag is about attachment to our collective home, our freedom, and the responsibility to our neighbors that comes with that freedom. It is about the value set that has brought us so far.

Our Churchillian opportunity may be that the middle majority is ready to break its silence, push extremists to the corners, and come together as patriots, pluralist and inclusive. So let us make what was once old new again, let us claim the flag together. Whatever our differences, let us appreciate one another as political competitors and love one another as neighboring Americans working under good, common principles. After all, the United States cannot be unmade except by our own hands.