BATON ROUGE, LA. — Memorial Day is a time to thank people we call heroes and patriots, and those who have sacrificed for us in past and present.
But, as someone who teaches writing, history, and politics, I'm uncomfortable at the exponential and indiscriminate use of formerly powerful words such as hero, patriot, and sacrifice. For example, I've heard politicians say that all teachers are heroes. My reply: I'm not, but some are - the ones who put in 40 years at inner-city schools for low pay and with low public support, and still march into class each day full of hope, enthusiasm, and energy.
And shouldn't we have a word reserved for people who actually risk their lives for the country or other people? The more people and professions we label as heroes, the more diluted we make the word.
Then there's the abused and confused word, "patriot." I'm not one of those either. I fulfill the modern definition of "someone who is loyal to one's country" and the ancient concept of being a "fellow countryman." But to classify myself as a patriot akin to George Washington or a soldier killed in action stretches the word to meaninglessness.
Some of the word's first appearances in English were in the writings of Ben Jonson in the early 1600s. In a play, "Volpone," he describes patriots as "sound lovers of their country." But in an elegy written later, the man dubbed "patriot" dies "a soldier to the last right end."
Likewise, I think patriots do not talk about doing. H. L. Mencken said, "Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it." Mencken, as usual, was being overly sarcastic to make a point. True patriotism involves some sort of sacrifice - a real one, not just a rhetorical one.
George Washington, then one of America's richest men, could have stayed safe at home during revolutionary times. He chose to fight for an idea and to found a country. Then after rendering unto the nation his health and the best of years of his life, he gave up power and returned to the farm. This final act of sacrificial humility astonished the kings of Europe.
Today, we have the National Guard Reservists called away from family and career to serve the nation. American teenagers - inexperienced in life - face death on foreign dunes and streets.
Sacrifices of this kind are defined by youths like Army Pfc. Diego Rincon, a 19-year-old from Conyers, Ga. Killed by a murderer-bomber at his checkpoint, he was a Colombian immigrant, but was awarded US citizenship posthumously. A friend wrote to Private Rincon's fiancée, "He will forever be remembered as a hero." In his last letter home, Rincon wrote, "Hóla Mother. I just hope that you're proud of what I'm doing and have faith in my decisions. I will try hard and not give up." That's true heroism, sacrifice, and patriotism.
In contrast, what have I sacrificed for my country? As far as I can tell, nothing. Take the war on terrorism, along with the related wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My income is unchanged; I'm not enduring "meatless Tuesdays" as did Americans during both world wars; even terrorism is a hazier threat than German bombers were to blitzed Londoners.
Sure, I've been inconvenienced a little. Airport lines take longer. I couldn't buy a Belgian cheese I like last year because safety restrictions held up imports. That's about it.
So I'm no patriot and no hero - but I admire those who are. They should be valued more and praised always. Their patriotism shouldn't be diluted by debasing the best words by which we can describe them and their true sacrifices for us.
• David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs. He is the author of 'Visions of War.'