A new kind of patriotism

On this July 4th, Americans are called to take a hard look at the meaning of patriotism and their own relationship to it. During the past year, a patriotic fervor spread across our great land: Flags adorned buildings and cars, donations were made to relief funds, and patriotic hymns were sung. Now, Independence Day brings even more patriotic displays – car ads, professional sporting events, parades, and politicians all wrap themselves in the red, white, and blue.

But do such expressions fulfill the true meaning of patriotism? Today, Americans are facing the challenge of how to engage in public life and politics. The time is ripe for each of us to step forward and declare how we will meet this challenge.

About six months ago, The Harwood Institute launched its nationwide initiative, the New Patriotism Project, which seeks to improve the conduct of political leaders, news media, and citizens in politics and public life. People often ask if the project's name was in response to Sept. 11.

In truth, the name came to be through conversations with individual Americans and their leaders over recent years and hearing them consistently lament how they have retreated from public life and politics, bemoaning its direction, frustrated by their seeming inability to change its course.

Listening to these compelling voices made me think about the essence of patriotism, and the need for its genuine renewal.

"Patriotism" often has been co-opted by hate groups, bigots, the militia, and others as a way to wrap themselves in the flag and hide from those whom they see as different. For some, it is an exclusionary term, intended to include only white males and to shut others out from the American Dream.

But a study of the word patriotism reveals an eloquent simplicity at its roots: To hold a love and devotion for one's country. Devotion knows no boundaries of skin color or religion, of economic class or geographic lines. It suggests that people must bring their whole selves to public life – as devotion cannot be fulfilled simply by going through the motions of rituals or halfway actions.

Genuine patriotism flows from a love of nation so deep that one is willing to search for what is good and right, especially when the path is hard, and when issues get confusing or tough or feel downright uncomfortable. Blind acceptance, falling in line, resignation, avoiding differences – these are the enemies of patriotism.

There is much unfinished work to do in our nation and communities: ensuring that all children receive a good education, tackling racism, learning to live with increasing diversity, making sure all people and all perspectives have a place at the public table. We need strong and healthy politics and public life to determine how we will do this work.

In a Harwood Institute/Gallup survey taken earlier this year, Americans expressed a robust notion of patriotism, saying that discussing issues with others and even expressing unpopular views is important work for the common good.

But there are important disconnects at work, too. Only 40 percent of Americans said that to be truly patriotic, one has to be involved in the political and civic life of the community. What's more, 67 percent said that today's children do not have a sufficient understanding of what the United States flag represents. And vast numbers of people do not expect the conduct of political leaders, news media, and citizens to improve in the 2002 elections, despite widespread patriotic pledges to the contrary.

To engage in devotion to America means that each of us must assume, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, a "posture of ownership." We must stand as part of public life and politics, not apart from it as mere bystanders, commentators, or spectators.

On this Independence Day, let all Americans step forward and declare their intentions about the kind of public life and politics they seek in our nation. And let us all embrace a new patriotism.

• Richard C. Harwood is president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to invigorate citizens, leaders, and organizations toward engaging in civic activity.

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