As on every Fourth, Americans know how to throw a party. Fireworks pop in unison, burgers are grilled perfectly, strawberry shortcake is passed out like candy. But one dish is hard to get right: patriotism. It is as much political weapon as it is social glue.
The word is often problematic because America is not a nation in the usual sense of the term, but an idea. "To be an American is not to be somebody, but to believe something," observes Gordon Wood, author of "Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different."
That "something" is a commonly accepted set of values, enshrined in the country's founding history and documents, that holds together a disparate collection of ethnicities and religions. Freedom, equality, democracy – these values work as a super epoxy, uniting the country in times of calamity, such as after a presidential assassination or a 9/11.
Yet in practice, the American "idea" often means different things to different people, and in working through a national debate, people disagree on how best to defend it. So it is that a moment of national unity can devolve into a period of discord as charges fly that a position – or person – is unpatriotic, un-American.
Today, those charges abound. Vietnam veteran and US Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania is tarred as a one-time patriot who "lost his way" because he favors a quick withdrawal from Iraq before it's secure. The New York Times is deemed unpatriotic for publishing stories about secret government antiterrorism programs. And the administration's antiterrorism tactics – from wiretapping to the treatment of detainees – are attacked for being un-American.
The US has experienced this dispute over what's American, what's patriotic, many times before, sometimes with harmful consequences. In the 1940s, for instance, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated citizens' alleged communist ties, with Hollywood blacklisting more than 300 suspected artists.
Then as now, the media reflect the passions at play. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal of today are vigorously defending their differing views of press freedom in wartime. In 1947, the New York Herald Tribune and acclaimed US essayist E.B. White engaged in a printed debate over a Tribune editorial which, in effect, endorsed loyalty oaths. Wrote Mr. White: "I can only assume that your editorial writer ... tripped over the First Amendment and thought it was the office cat."
During these passionate debates, America's founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution – are essential guideposts. The nation witnessed their guiding power just last week, when the Supreme Court ruled that the president overstepped his authority in establishing military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay.
This July 4, Americans – and their leaders in particular – must take care not to play the patriotism card against opponents. They should refrain from questioning "love ... for one's country" (as Webster's defines the word), and keep instead to a debate about the substance of ideas, and how well those ideas fit within the Founders' democratic framework. To do that, they must be familiar with the founding history and documents. Which augers a little reading this year, along with burger flipping.