When I was a small child, my teacher taught us to love our country via teaching us all the verses of This Land is Your Land. In retrospect, this probably explains a lot about my sense of patriotism.
For those who are only familiar with the first couple patriot-approved verses, it continues like this:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
This Land Is Your Land is a deeply patriotic song. But it’s not a song shaped by what America actually, factually is. Indeed, it seems to think America as it actually factually is is kind of terrible (full of hungry people, private property, and a distinct lack of a socialist utopia). It’s about what America could be, what America aspires to, and– in its best moments– what America is.
I am unironically, full-heartedly patriotic. I have been known to cry at Lee Greenwood’s God Bless The USA, possibly the most glurgey tripe ever written. But I’m not patriotic about America’s actual history and the twin original sins of genocide against Native Americans and slavery of Africans.
My patriotism is about freedom, in a very practical, down-to-earth sense. My patriotism is about helping felons regain the right to vote and about saying “Officer, I am not resisting, but I do not consent to searches.” It is about, to a very large degree, the ACLU. It is about the right of Nazis to march through a community full of Holocaust survivors, because we have principles.
My patriotism is about America as a nation of immigrants. About “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, about the people I know who would be beaten or imprisoned or worse in their home countries but are safer here, a place that is not perfect but is better than many. American Gods got it right, I think, in telling the story of America as the story of the waves of immigrants who came here and brought their gods along: Irish and Italian, Germans and Poles, Chinese and Jewish, Mexican and Indian.
I think that American progressives have ceded patriotism to conservatives for far too long. Trump does not own the concept of patriotism, nor is there some law that only tax protesters and not Black Lives Matter can wave the Don’t Tread On Me flag. Patriotism, if it is to mean anything at all, must be about more than flags and nostalgia for the 1950s or the 1850s. We can have a vision of a better future, a brighter future, for America. We can say “our country has not lived up to its ideals in the past, but it can do better and it will do better.” We can say: “Our America does not surveil people or imprison them without trial or kill children. Our America is welcoming to refugees and to those who want a chance to build a better life for themselves and their families.”
This land has never, actually, belonged to you and me. But it was made for you and me just the same.