I have something to say about being a patriot in these here United States of America. In my wildest dreams I didn’t expect to feel all that passionate about patriotism, but my thoughts on the subject were shaped by, of all things, the death of Whitney Houston.
The other day, while I checked in on various social media I noticed a disturbing trend among a few friends who suggested that instead of honoring the death of Whitney Houston we should instead honor the men and women who serve in the military. Their argument is that the death of a soldier serving his or her country is more worthy of our mourning and that we’re wasting our sadness on the death of someone insignificant. It is bizarre to me that anyone would devote energy to micromanaging others’ time. Acknowledging the death of a celebrity, it seems, is wasteful.
One of the posts by a friend of mine mentioned that she had seen too much exposure on Good Morning America about Whitney, but I had to wonder why she thought that all the entertainment flooding the real news outlets was to blame. Personally, I don’t feel like GMA is a good news source. Naturally, I argued those points with her and the appropriation of patriotic values as exclusive to the military and that death, no matter how it comes, is truly tragic for the loved ones we leave behind. My suggestion was that she turn off the television or stick with news outlets that only display military updates, but that went ignored and she lashed back out at me (not in my comment section, but on her own Facebook wall) until she finally just deleted me from her friend list. She was, I learned, so angry with me that she ended the only contact we have. I learned that there was no way to have a mature, compassionate discussion about this point on which we disagreed.
What has shaped my thoughts on this subject are two men in my life who are veterans: my father and The Cuban. In fact, The Cuban has recently considered re-joining the military and we have had multiple discussions about it. Both my dad and The Cuban show patriotism in what I consider traditional ways. They remove their hats when the National Anthem is sung and they get highly offended when men don’t abide by this show of respect, they know how an American flag should be folded and displayed on a flagpole, and they both appreciate the service that the military has given to this country in the form of employment and national ministrations. Both of them also respect my patriotic service to the United States, too, even if it’s not traditional.
I wouldn’t presume to exclude myself as a patriot simply because I haven’t served in the Armed Forces, but I am no less patriotic nor am I less American because of that. My service to the country comes in the form of educator. My role as a community member and worker for the nation by teaching children is, at times, lauded as heroic and valuable, but more often than not we educators are on the receiving end of scathing commentaries about failed systems, high salaries and the almighty 3-month vacation. True, there are systemic issues, but if I go to work every day with the attitude that I am fighting for the rights of students to be educated then I am just as patriotic as the military servicemen and women who pack up and leave home to help secure those rights as well, right? Doesn’t my job count as patriotic? One of the daily duties of my job includes leading over 300 children in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance while standing before an American flag in an American public school classroom. The words of the Pledge sometimes get to me and when I say things like “liberty and justice for all” I find that I have tears in my eyes.
Not long after reading the stories celebrating the talented and generous and Christian parts of Whitney Houston’s life, I started researching this phenomena whereby we qualify what is and isn’t patriotic. It struck me as very sad that on this one point over which we disagreed my friend was unable to have a discussion with me. It made me look into the global issue of military entitlement as it has evolved in this country. I read this post called “Do Military Familes Feel Entitled?” by the founder and editor of SpouseBUZZ. Andi, the author, mentions that this is an entitlement culture and one that breeds a sense of disconnect between military families and civilians. While being careful not to paint the entire military with a single brush, I will say that a lot of military families I know have told me that they should always get a discount at local stores based on the service they’re providing to the country. It makes me uncomfortable to hear that since I know plenty of teachers who would enjoy a discount, too, as many of them are living near or below the poverty level in their service to educating the nation’s children. Two teacher couples I know are getting help from government assistance so that they can feed their families. Right now in our country a lot of people who serve the nation are feeling the economic pinch. The entitlement that some of them feel they have a right to claim bleeds over into where our loyalties lie, who we should vote for in elections, and, yes, that a pop singer’s death after years of drugs and dysfunction shouldn’t be honored because we should only honor the lost lives of soldiers.
This isn’t a contest of who is more patriotic, either. It has, however, become an annoyance to many civilians who feel as if some people associated with the Armed Services feel they have more claim to nationalism and patriotism. It is becoming a theme I see more often about who gets the right to define what makes a real “hero”. This morning, when I watched the garbage man pick up my trash in the blustery cold I didn’t consider calling him a hero for doing so, but I did appreciate his efforts and the job he does to ensure that litter doesn’t build up in my neighborhood. Making my city street clean is a community service that, when combined all over the country, is patriotic, too. I thank him just as I thank the military soldiers for the work they do everywhere and not just in the United States. My garbage man did that as a job and knowingly went into that to make my city beautiful and he gets paid to do that. Isn’t he a patriot, too?
Obviously, soldiers put themselves in harm’s way and that job is a volunteer service. Indeed, that does show a level of patriotism that a lot of people wouldn’t display. But so does taking a job in an inner city school where you have to enter through a metal detector which also is a volunteer position and also shows a level of patriotism. That’s not to say that only people who put their lives on the line for our country are true patriots. This is such a difficult conversation to have because I’m talking about the far ends of the spectrum of both of these jobs. There are levels in between of jobs and commitments to this country where people are heroic every day and show patriotism in a manner that is nearly indescribable.
This blame game is dividing our country more than I’ve ever seen. As an American, I wish bipartisanship would occur naturally and not be such an anomaly in politics. As a human, I wish my friend and I could have had a real, meaty conversation about the larger issue of patriotism and death and loss and celebrity and loyalties. As an educator, I’m opposed to the assumption than any job other than one in the military doesn’t respect our nation or stand up for freedom in the very republic in which we live. Those beliefs and levels of complexity are the very thing that make me American.
photo credit to Brandi Korte