My daughter was almost a year old when the attacks of 9/11 happened. By the time she started school the anniversary was taking shape as a holy day of America’s civic religion. September 11 is referred to by some as Patriot’s Day. I’m not sure that it fits for this day. My kids were told to wear red, white and blue to school. On one hand, these are not colors of mourning and not all who died were American. It’s understandable, on the other hand, that we fortify our national resolve on the anniversary of a then un-imagined attack on our institutions. I worry that wrapping the day in the flag creates a feeling of us against the world or the sense that we take on the world by ourselves. Virtually every nation came to our side in what was seen as an attack on tolerant, decent, humane society. Some people want to bind up patriotism with powerful and irrefutable emotions. #Patriotism can be a dangerous thing and people should be more suspicious of how it gets employed and how we get manipulated by its abusers. Everyone is suspicious of lawyers and politicians but patriotic fervor seems to go untested and makes our overrides our critical thinking.
June 14th is #Flag Day. I wish we would not make the flag the beginning and the end every national commemoration; I worry that we forget the “republic for which it stands.” Again, it is too easily used to drape many questionable ideas and is often the refuge of scoundrels, as Samuel Johnson said in 1775.
#Independence Day, with all its backyard BBQs and beer, is thought my many to be redeemed by festoons of flags and red, white and blue fruit salad and table cloths. It should, instead, have us take time to remember the “Declaration of Independence” and the noble and as yet unfulfilled values it proclaimed to the world. How many people mark the day by reciting and celebrating the idea that “All men (and women) are created equal” as the day’s document boldly declared? Amid the exploding pyrotechnics, how much time is given to appreciating the rise of enlightenment values in a world that was exploding and knee-deep in blood from religious wars?
Sunday September 17, is #Constitution Day. What could be more patriotic for Americans than remembering the ground breaking work of the authors of that document, imperfect though it was? Every American holiday could include reciting the preamble, “We the People” yet the day for our founding document goes unnoticed. How many Americans could pass the test we make immigrants take? How well do most of us understand the nature of democracy and the structure of a republic.
December 15 is #BillofRights Day. Fully deserving of it’s own attention, the first ten amendments to the Constitution ensure that the majority will not use democracy to persecute individuals, oppress minorities or deny unpopular ideas their place in the public square. How many Americans understand the Bill of Rights and the protections it affords to those who would be denied human dignity without them? Democracy can be a dangerous thing and our history has sought to limit it as much as it has elevated it. As that struggle fades from memory the necessary vigilance and the appreciation of the paradox begins to wane.
Also in our pantheon is Columbus Day which elevates the most imperfect of our heroes and Thanksgiving which supplies a mythic founding that chooses one group of people to be our spiritual founders who provide moral justification for what came next. These days celebrate a kind of resilience and accomplishment, a triumph of the spirit to survive and thrive.
Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day hold meaning for many who have been impacted by war but that is a shrinking group even as war becomes unending. It’s a thin line between supporting our troops and condoning a war and the more these dates turn into patriotic performances and less into remembering those we have lost, the harder it gets for many of us to be faithful Americans who cherish and exercise our right to desent.
So much of our patriotic celebrations are about how great we are, how superior we are to every other nation. It is declaring your allegiance without any actual support offered. It is peddled and plied as a devotion without sacrifice, an assent without understanding. It lulls its celebrants into a self satisfied stance of superiority to the world. It diminishes the power of the people by appealing to an effortless, inherited privilege. Here’s an idea for a holiday: a day to stand up and do your part. How about a day when we actually support our veterans and actually provide for the common defense. Could we have a day that is more than performance of empty ritual, clanging gongs and noise cymbals? How about a day to commit to what needs to be done for our roads and bridges, our schools and nursing homes? There is a day, of course: #TaxDay. Let’s have a parade on #April15th. Let’s march while waving our 1040s and circle the post office while each in turn deposits their return. Let’s get away from patriot shows and start performing patriotic duty.