…. or a bumper sticker. Or a coffee mug. Or a pen. Or any other article of clothing, business utensil, or chachkie.
I noticed, shortly after 09/11, that more and more “patriotic” gear started turning up. It was everywhere I looked – and still is. It makes sense, right? America is coming together, despite our ideological and political differences, to face a common enemy – terrorism – and we affirm our patriotism and solidarity by wearing and displaying this patriotic gear.
Wrong. This wave of patriotic gear is catering to a need, true, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is altruistic patriotism. This is capitalism in action, folks. A few bright and entrepreneurial business people and marketers recognized the need for Americans to express themselves after the tragedy of 9/11 and capitalized on the grief and angst of the nation.
And so, because the average American was impotent and unable to actually do anything post-9/11, he quickly opened up his wallet to buy the t-shirt with an eagle on it, or the bumper sticker making patriotic and pithy remarks on it. This gear is so ubiquitous and freely available that Americans don’t have to think about what patriotism means to them, and how to be patriotic – there is no real need for a person to BE patriotic as long as one LOOKS patriotic nowadays. There is no sacrifice for country; there is no sense that we are all working towards the same goal. There is only fashion statement and dull witticisms that most think are cutting. The sadly ironic note here is that nearly 100% of this patriotic gear is made in China.
This is not for me. My patriotism cannot be defined by a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. You will never find me wearing an American flag on my chest or see a so-called patriotic sticker on my motorcycle helmet. I don’t feel the need to proclaim my patriotism in such a thoughtless and conformist way. This national trend of empty patriotic statements worn on shirts or on vehicles, in my opinion, mocks true patriotism. Patriotism can’t be summed up in wordplay of two sentences or less. It cannot fit on the chest or back of a shirt. Patriotism is a complex and powerful concept and emotion that defines such paltry definition.
A person who defines patriotism on their t-shirt is, in my opinion, akin to a person who looks for wisdom in a Cracker Jack box. Yeah – we all did that in third grade, but then we grew out of it.
I look for examples of patriotism in the Greatest Generation – in my grandmother and grandfather. Children of the Great Depression, a war hero and his wife; I look to them for my patriotic inspiration. They do not wear these silly shirts. They do not have inane bumper stickers. My grandfather’s car has a POW / Purple Heart plate on it. That’s it. When asked how they are patriotic I was told: “We served. We sacrificed. We vote. We had parades.”
The themes that struck in their explanation were “service, sacrifice, and duty.” My grandfather joined the Army and fought in WWII. He was captured, wounded, was a POW, and just recently was knighted by France for his valor at the Battle of the Bulge. He served. My grandmother worked in the factories and helped the war effort by increasing production at home. She served.
My grandfather sacrificed his freedom; he was a POW. He gave everything so we could be free; and almost lost his life for it. My grandmother, likewise, sacrificed herself. Rubber, tires, metals, electronics – she gave them all up and offered them to the war effort.
And, of course, they embrace their duty as Americans and are conscientious voters. Even today, in their mid-80’s, they keep abreast of the political climate, know what is going on, have opinions, and express themselves at the polls. They understand duty.
When appropriate, they joined with fellow Americans to express their patriotism publicly by waving an actual flag, in a parade. It was a celebration of life, honor, and of America that was not cheapened by 80% polyester.
How many of us really understand service, sacrifice, and duty? How many people who proclaim their patriotism on shirts have thought about their duty as Americans? How many are willing to sacrifice anything in the name of patriotism. Not many, I suspect.
When patriotism is homogenized, manipulated, and simplified so it can fit on a t-shirt it ceases to have any meaning. It becomes a fashion statement and becomes a concept devoid of critical thought. It suggests that patriotism is a just like that shirt it is printed on – an artifact to be put on and then discarded at whim.
How sad for America – for us – that most of us have such a convenient and disposable definition of Patriotism.
Not me, brother. Not me.