My favorite 4th of July song is “I am a Patriot”- originally written by E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt and covered wonderfully by Jackson Browne and Eddie Vedder. The chorus nails what patriotism means to me:
“I am a patriot and I love my country
because my country is all I know.
I want to be with my family,
people who understand me —
I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
I don’t love my country because it’s the best. I don’t love my country because our people deserve any more care than any other people do. I don’t love my country because it’s uniquely great or just. (In fact, in many ways, my country is especially troubled.) I don’t even love my country because it’s the one I would necessarily choose.
Rather, I love America because I didn’t choose it. It’s like my family or like the rights we were promised in the Declaration of Independence: inalienable. These people – my fellow Americans – are the ones who understand me. This homeland – our patria, from Yosemite to my neighborhood strip mall – is all I know. Like Van Zandt says: I’ve got nowhere else to go.
And, honestly, as far as countries to be born into and peoples to be stuck with, I feel blessed to be part of this country and these people. I get to share a national heritage with martyrs for freedom like John Brown and Nat Turner, Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Harvey Milk. I get to be raised by the nation that fostered innovators like Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales and Settlement Houses’ Jane Addams, the Girl Scouts’ Juliette Gordon Low and A Change Is Gonna Come’s Sam Cooke. I get to draw on a legacy of dissent that includes pacifist Jeanette Rankin and indigenous leader Winona LaDuke, unionist Eugene V. Debs and voting rights warrior Fannie Lou Hamer.
If I were to forsake this country due to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington’s hypocrisy, I would lose with it Martin Luther King and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s calls to live up to the Framers’ promise. If I were to forsake this country due to Harry Truman and Henry Kissinger’s bombs, I would lose with it Eleanor Roosevelt and Daniel Berrigan’s peacemaking. For every John D. Rockefeller, there’s a Rachel Carson. For every Roger B. Taney, there’s a Thurgood Marshall. For every Donald J. Trump, there’s a Dolores Huerta. The same nation that polluted the world’s airwaves with the schlock of Madison Avenue filled the world’s pages with the jubilation of Walt Whitman. (He sure was right about us: we are large; we do contain multitudes!)
What’s most wonderful about America, though, is that we, more than most other nations, are brought together not just by our shared past, but rather by our shared future. Because of this, a single generation of Founding Fathers cannot and should not be the last word on what and who we can and should be. Instead, every American is called to be continuing Founders of what our nation is to become. And that patriotic calling — to conserve and reimagine, to defend and build, to achieve and realize our country — is what I celebrate on the 4th of July.
As is tradition, we hope to answer that call in a way that grows our Freedom, which to me is defined by Empowerment and Solidarity: devolving power so that more of us can realize our dreams and building community so that more of us can see each others’ dreams as our own.
In that project, our generation of Americans, like each previous generation, has a long way to go. But before we can change a nation, we must be members of it. And to be a member of a nation is to love it with our hands and heads and hearts… to be a patriot.
To all those old American patriots who got us to where we are today and to all those young American patriots ready to stick it out through this decade’s storm and continue the work of leaving our country better off than we found it: a happy 4th of July to you!