by Philip Baillargeon
Ken Harbaugh is a veteran of the United States Navy, serving for nearly a decade, and a former Democratic nominee for the 7th Congressional District of Ohio. A decorated pilot with ample experience in veterans’ advocacy projects, one would assume that he would be able to reach voters by emphasizing his duty and commitment to his country throughout his life. His opponents chose to smear him by questioning his “patriotism”, fixating on one key, disqualifying factor.
He had refused to wear an American flag pin.
The year I graduate high school marks the twentieth year since the September 11th attacks, a date that grows more infamous as time goes on. The story of patriotism in the twenty-first century begins at that day and with the healing process thereafter. The wound from that horrific event remains untreated; the scar just as hideous as we left it, patched only with a vigor to retaliate that has kept our people fighting seemingly endless wars out of blind rage. What we have today in the United States is tribalism, not patriotism. I see no other way to explain military parades, camera laden summits with flags plastered everywhere, and rallies with canned phrases that are shouted at other groups, often taking the form of veiled threats. Harbaugh himself cites the chants of “U.S.A.!”, at such rallies as a way to intimidate, not to unify, effectively weaponizing patriotism.
Some extremist groups treat patriotism like a test, with Americans being put to the task of “passing” or “failing” based on their political ideology, race, or identity. The phrase, “Go back to where you came from”, a phrase used by the President of the United States in July, implies a failure to meet a certain measure of standard to be worthy of living in the United States of America, a standard clearly met by members of Congress, naturalized citizens, and any other citizen of the United States who simply had the convenience of being born here. But what was this measure of “patriotism”? Why, allegiance to his government, his White House, and his party’s ideals. This is tribalism, or the creation of separate groups for the express purpose of creating conflict. How do you smear Ken Harbaugh by calling him “un-American”? By labeling him as “one of them”, a “Democrat”, one who is incapable of loving Trump’s America, confusing it with the United States.
Mark Twain once said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and the government when it deserves it.” I have no more apt description of the problem with American patriotism to give you. Many Republicans define patriotism as support of President Trump, and confuse this with support for the United States. Members of “The Squad”, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, propose progressive reform because they believe it is what is best for this country. They do not support the ideals Trump supports, just like nobody should be forced to support the Green New Deal, and they deserve respect for their attempt to better the lives of Americans and America’s position in the world as a whole.
So, what does true patriotism look like? I have one name for you: Ady Barkan. Barkan was diagnosed with ALS in 2016 at the young age of thirty two. Knowing his days are numbered, he has rushed to make an impact on the lives of as many people as possible, pushing for healthcare reform to assist others with disabilities. He didn’t stop fighting when he lost the use of his arms, his legs, and even his voice. He’s flown across the country to testify for Congress on healthcare reform, an act that could have killed him due to the severity of his condition. He deserves your respect, because he understands, as all Americans should, that his ideals do not die with his body; his dream for America lives on.
That’s patriotism. That’s love for country in the form of belief in its power. To fight for the care of Americans, to believe his country can serve people in need, and to attempt to realize this goal himself by hitting the road in critical condition demonstrates true passion for his country. A sense of morality, an understanding of the desire of oneself and others to holistically protect and advance the rights of the people of this country, is vital to a patriot. It’s not a card checked at the door, nor can it be measured by one’s loyalty to the current government. It’s everyone under one country, not two tribes tearing the fabric of American morality to shreds.
All I ask is that we collectively take a moment on some national holidays, like Fourth of July and Labor Day, and really understand what they mean, whether it be the unification of a people demanding representation or a celebration of the workers that are the life and soul of our nation. Remember Ady Barkan, who aptly writes in his Twitter bio, “Dying of ALS”, as if to say, “I know my days are numbered, but I’m still fighting anyway.” The tribalistic nature of the United States today places an importance on winning against an enemy, most often taking the form of the other political party. If we want to guarantee the rights and freedoms of the United States to our children, we need to focus on the common goal of providing the best life we can to all citizens, and, most importantly, preserving that government Twain writes about so it can survive until the time comes to pass the torch to a new generation. It’s time to be a patriot. Lives depend on it.