Photo by Lucas Sankey on Unsplash

The Patriotic Progressive

I’ve heard it again and again. I’m not patriotic because I’m a “liberal.” I “hate my country.” I don’t support Trump, so I must not support America.

And I’m sick of it.

This Independence Day, like every Independence Day, I think a lot about what the USA, my birth country, means to me. Like many schoolchildren, I was raised with a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. I loved Roland Emmerich’s adorably patriotic films like Independence Day and The Patriot. I proudly wore American flag stickers and pins. I scarfed down hot dogs and BBQ at every Fourth of July picnic. I felt safe and empowered by being an American. Like many of my peers, I happily informed people that “it’s a free country” whenever they disagreed with me. I was, by every typical measure, a red-blooded American.

And yet, as George W. Bush took power, I watched the culture war erupt, and with it a malicious claim to patriotism orchestrated by Karl Rove on behalf of the GOP. From then on, I watched as “Support the Troops” yellow-ribbon magnets adorned countless cars, yet when I expressed concern over the conditions that veterans faced, I was called a “bleeding heart, anti-military liberal.” I watched as Hummers grew in popularity, yet when I expressed concerns over rising carbon emissions, I was mocked for being a “tree hugger” who hated American cars, and by extension all business. I was shocked to find that his supporters didn’t think people like me were patriotic, because I didn’t like war, environmental destruction, or corruption, as though those things were inherently American. And perhaps, I learned in horror, as I learned about the history of slavery and torture in America, they were.

To me, this meant that the USA simply hadn’t reached its potential as the greatest nation in the world, a land of the free where anyone could live comfortably and pursue their dreams. To me, being a progressive simply meant that we had work to do. But, beginning with the reign of George W. Bush and exploding into uncomfortably fascist tendencies that started long ago and gained traction with Trumpism, conservatives angrily retorted that America was already great, or at least it was, until those damned liberals.

My patriotism evolved. Rather than happily yet blindly embracing American symbols and heroic narratives, I wanted the principle of liberty and promise of opportunity to be fully embraced by all. I wanted everyone in the country, native or immigrant, to feel represented and safe. As I learned that many people did not feel safe or welcome, as I learned that to many, patriotism was linked to whiteness, I began to feel guilty for my blind patriotism. But that did not quell my love for my country. Rather, because I loved my country, I wanted it to improve.

That is the measure of progressivism: to want progress, to not accept that the current situation was as good as it gets. In time, I learned that the reason those in power were content to believe it was, was simply because they wanted to preserve their power. They used patriotic ideals as an excuse for complacency rather than a motivator for true greatness. My patriotism was something to be mocked, rather than respected. Meanwhile, vacuous symbols of patriotism, such as flag code-defying clothing and lots of guns, became the bread and butter of the neoconservative movement and its attempted monopoly on patriotism, while the general public bought the idea that Republicans were more patriotic than Democrats.

Perhaps we define it differently. But I think there’s more to it than that: while patriotism is simply love of country, there’s a difference between conditional love and unconditional love. Think of your significant other: if you unconditionally love them, you accept all their flaws and support them as they improve. It doesn’t mean you accept bad behavior. If you conditionally love them, you only support them as long as they support you. True patriotism, therefore, allows the possibility of flaws in the thing you love — and the hope of change. When Trumpism insists that we make America great again, it’s gaslighting us with the notion that America ceased to be great, the implication being that non-white, non-Republican, and non-conforming people attained too much power. For a nation built by immigrants with promises of individual liberty and true representation, that’s hardly a patriotic view.

This Independence Day, I vow to do my part to make America great. Not great again, because we didn’t cease to be great. We simply have more work to do. And if history is any indication, blind loyalty is not the way.

Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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