Some Thoughts on Patriotism this Fourth
Wendell Berry had much to say about the nature of true patriotism. The following quote is but a small sampling:
For a nation to be, in the truest sense, patriotic, its citizens must love their land with a knowing, intelligent, sustaining, and protective love. They must not, for any price, destroy its health, its beauty, or its productivity. And they must not allow their patriotism to be degraded to a mere loyalty to symbols or any present set of officials.
On July 4th, I often think back to a conversation I overheard as a young boy. My mother and her brother-in-law, my favorite uncle, were drinking coffee in the kitchen of our old house. My uncle was a career Navy man who fought in three wars, circumnavigated the globe four times, and was, to my great pleasure, the fount of endless stories. His life revolved around commitment, duty, honor and service. It must’ve been around the Fourth and he was expounding on such themes. When he referenced the flag, my mother replied, matter-of-factly, that “it was just a piece of cloth.” She was blunt and plain-spoken, without an ounce of artifice to her. I suppose one of her virtues was that she said exactly what she thought. But it was also her vice. This flabbergasted my uncle and left him almost sputtering for a response. Truth be told, he was a little put out with her. And so was I, for although I loved my mother, of course, I idolized my uncle.
We were not patriotic in the generally accepted sense of the word. We never flew the flag. We didn’t pop fireworks (a waste of money). We didn’t pontificate about “freedom,” or “liberty” or “democracy” or such things. The Fourth of July was a day off from work (unless we had hay on the ground and it was threatening rain). My mother would fix quite a spread: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, her special rolls, fresh tomatoes, okra, peas, etc., and a selection of desserts. My dad and I would be in the carport, taking turns with the ice cream freezer. My sister and her family and my brother and his children would pile in. My dad would be in an expansive mood and would tell the old familiar stories from his youth. As often as not, neighbors or extended family stopped by for dessert and coffee. That was what the Fourth of July meant to us: our place, our family, our neighborhood and extended connections. We would have been uneasy had anyone tried to make more out it than that.
I have come to realize that both my mother and my uncle were each right and wrong. She wouldn’t have know Wendell Berry from Adam, but she would have agreed with the sentiments he expressed. My mother’s stark literalism, however, can leave one with a cramped view of the world and our place in it. Material objects may very well have meaning beyond their mere materiality. Their symbolism, however, cannot be in the abstract, but must be rooted in the particular.