What does it mean to be a patriot?
The words “my country, right or wrong” are used often to express allegiance to a nation no matter what it does. It was first proposed as a toast but later amended by Carl Schurz in an 1872 U.S. Senate speech: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right, and if wrong, to be set right.”
Patriotism means supporting the country when it lives up to the values expressed in its reason for being but also helping to set it right when it violates the principles expressed in its Constitution and Bill of Rights.
I honor the patriots who serve others. Remembering the events of Sept. 11, 2001, I recall those first responders who rushed into the burning towers to rescue others or those 40 passengers and crew members of United Airlines Flight 93 who sought to thwart a planned attack on our Capitol.
In many ways and places there are patriots who sacrifice their own comfort to serve others. I think of the many health care workers who serve victims of COVID-19 in hospitals. I recall teachers who remained in classrooms to teach children. I think of politicians who put the country before their reelection prospects. And I think of countless others who day by day help us — from mail carriers to store clerks.
But there’s a difference between nationalism and patriotism.
George Orwell, an English journalist and author of the novel, 1984, wrote: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.
“Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
Patriotism depends on unity of purpose with people of different political or religious views pledging allegiance to “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” True patriots see their responsibility not only to meet their needs but those of the wider community as well.
President George Washington, in his farewell address, stressed the need for national unity but warned us about partisan politics: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension … is itself a frightful despotism….”
Speaking at a Flight 93 memorial service, former President George W. Bush recalled the unity of purpose most Americans felt after the tragedy but also issued this warning about the present time in our national history from those within our country with a “disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols….”
I think the words of President John F. Kennedy at his 1961 inauguration address might help heal our wounds and draw out our better angels: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
John C. Morgan is a teacher and writer. On or about every Memorial Day, he uses this column first written some years ago to remind us of what we celebrate and why.