By Jamil Zainaldin
Though Veterans Day is past, our appreciation for those in uniform is never far from mind. Our remembrance extends back in time, too, across the generations. For many, remembrance is inseparable from patriotism.
Ask most people what patriotism is, and they will say loyalty to one’s country or native land. They will also point to a willingness to defend it. This is a good-enough definition. But American patriotism is something more than a defense of the homeland.
Greg Newington is an internationally renowned Australian photographer whose work appears in books and museums worldwide. His most recent product is a stunning book of photography published by the University of Georgia Press in partnership with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia that marks the ACCG’s centennial. Newington travelled to all 159 county seats in Georgia, capturing on film the beauty and character of these landmarks.
At the ceremonial unveiling of this gem of a book, on November 13, in Perry, Newington observed, “Wherever I travel in the world, I rarely see a national flag flying in people’s front yards or hanging in their windows. In the U.S., I see the flag everywhere. Why is that?”
As I listened, I made some mental notes: we fly the flag in our front yard. My father, son of a Lebanese immigrant, installed a two-story flagpole in front of his modest one-story home (he was a veteran of three wars). My Dunwoody neighbor, an artist and craftsman, painted scrap floorboards that he mounted into a marvelous, wooden rendition of Old Glory. It hangs on the wall of our garage. I also purchased one for my daughter and her family, who placed it on the side of their Oglethorpe County house. Somewhere in the back of my closet, I have an American flag tie. Many of us have lapel pens. My son in first grade painted an American flag of many colors that hangs in my office.
The other day I was behind a car whose driver apparently was a fan of Argentina’s soccer team (quite an impressive decal on the back window). Next to it was an American flag — a mobile flag! There’s nothing unusual about that either, we know.
Newington is right: the American flag is everywhere. So what is it about our patriotism?
I think to define “patriotic” simply as loyalty to a native land hardly covers the answer. More than real estate, the United States of America is an idea,one that does not sit still. I believe what makes our patriotism so unique are its roots in that far-seeing, beautifully crafted document that proclaimed “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” among which are “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These words when they first appeared in the 1776 Declaration of Independence were radical, and no less today than then. They jump off the page still. And in response to this declaration, people like my Lebanese grandfather (and my mother’s Scotch-Irish grandparents) started to come and have never stopped coming, hoping to claim for themselves the benefits of a promised land.
As they achieved new lives in their adopted country, they (and their children) never hesitated to serve — and wave the flag. What better way to let the world know that you are the proud citizen of a new world democracy, one built on universal ideals?
Obviously, it is also the case that the U.S. did not (and does not always) perfectly live up to its own ideals. We have done things that are shameful, that belie the promise. We have before us still, as Lincoln famously put it in his Gettysburg Address, “unfinished business.” If never perfectly fulfilled, our founding principles remain always before us — and the world — as spur and inspiration.
The U.S. still shines brightly for many who seek freedom, dignity, and opportunity. It is that kind of patriotism, the challenge of living up to our 1776 vision that makes us lovers of this land and wavers of our flag. This kind of pride is bigger than turf. It dwells in a thankfulness that makes every place the right place to say, “Proud to be an American.”
Living up to that ideal is our challenge. And when we stop trying, we will cease to be worthy of the flag we fly.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.