Other Voices

On Independence Day, let’s figure out what patriotism is

July 4 is America’s most patriotic holiday, but patriotism is more than fireworks.
July 4 is America’s most patriotic holiday, but patriotism is more than fireworks. Ralph Lauer

July 4, the grand mid-summer holiday with picnics, parades and fireworks, would be a good time to pause and consider that we mean by patriotism.

Politicians these days fling the word about wildly and loosely.

We see patriotism coded, for instance, to mean America nationalism — we’re better than everyone else, and we need to show them.

Or, in another context, it has a xenophobic contour — keep Muslims or other immigrants out of the country, or “why can’t they be like us?”

Sometimes national security is part and parcel of patriotism. And considerable “patriotic” rhetoric these days masks a long-simmering anti-intellectual streak in America — the facts be damned, as it were.

Gov. Greg Abbott played a game like that when, as attorney general, he filed suit against the president’s plan to relax immigration enforcement to the extent it would not break up the families of law-abiding, gainfully employed immigrants.

Abbott found a judge to his liking who ruled in his favor.

When a divided U.S. Supreme Court let the ruling stand, Abbott and his successor, Attorney General Ken Paxton, crowed about their success, even though their legal maneuvering, paid for by our tax money, subjected 743,000 Texas immigrants to immediate deportation, breaking up their families.

Abbott and Paxton also lead the battle to defend the Texas voter ID law that effectively disenfranchised thousands of poor, elderly and minority voters.

The reason given for making voting significantly more difficult is to prevent fraud, even though there is a pittance of fraud cases over the last decade.

None of this is true patriotism.

True patriotism is building our country, unifying its diverse people behind the common goal of achieving our “unalienable” rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and recognizing that the purpose of government is “to secure these rights,” as the Declaration of Independence frames it.

Patriotism is about forming community, not dividing it or excluding segments of our society.

The Declaration is a communitarian statement of principles; it is not just about individuals. It is a vision the last line of the Declaration emphasizes: “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

The authors of the Declaration, we know, had a narrow view of who had unalienable rights — essentially, white male freeholders and landowners. Subsequent generations steadily and painstakingly extended the Declaration’s promises to everyone.

Too many people have been murdered over the years, or brutally clubbed and beaten, fighting for these rights, for us to sit back and let false patriotism tear at our democratic fabric.

We owe it to those who have suffered and died, and to our grandchildren, to make democracy what it should be.

We have an uncanny way of “flattening” the Fourth of July, limiting it to something festive rather than looking at the challenges it presents for us to be better Americans and accomplish the goals for which we have declared ourselves.

As a country, we are veering away from our community goals of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for everyone.

We’re becoming ever more individualistic, and even selfish.

“What’s in it for me” has overpowered “what’s good for all of us.”

For a county where a sizeable number of people claim a Judeo-Christian ethic, we are remarkably short on feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly, healing the sick, paying just wages, narrowing the inequality between rich and poor, welcoming the immigrant and pounding swords into ploughshares.

And we have buried civil dialogue in a grave of acrimonious political discourse, often shouting about who is more patriotic than the other.

On this Independence Day, let’s celebrate, but also examine ourselves as a nation and recommit ourselves to our ideals.

That is true patriotism.

James C. Harrington, a human rights lawyer in Austin, is founder and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project.