It’s the third Monday of April so, for the states of Massachusetts, Maine (which was part of Massachusetts until 1820) and Wisconsin, it is Patriots’ Day. Having taught in Massachusetts for four school years (1984-87, 1994-95) that always meant a week off, as well as “Marathon Monday” and a Red Sox game at Fenway Pahk. When Patriots' Day coincides with Easter Weekend, as it did this year, teachers and students get the “bonus” of Good Friday off, a quaint little perk no doubt initiated in Irish-Catholic Boston. What I’d like to focus on in this Blast is the word “patriot” because it is so rife with meaning in U.S. society. Not having seen the Mark Wahlberg movie (that received mixed reviews), I don’t want to digress about the bombing, the Marathon, the Red Sox, or the day off (extending this year’s tax deadline to the 18th of April!). Rather, let’s look at the word and how it has been applied, appropriated, and abused throughout United States history.
As to the word itself, the Online Etymology Dictionary says the following:
1590s, "compatriot," from Middle French patriote (15c.) and directly from Late Latin patriota "fellow-countryman" (6c.), from Greek patriotes "fellow countryman," from patrios "of one's fathers," patris "fatherland," from pater (genitive patros) "father" (see father (n.)); with -otes, suffix expressing state or condition.
Anyone familiar with Latin or the Romance Languages no doubt recognizes the “pater” at the heart of the word. A straight ahead Online Merriam Webster dictionary tell us:
One who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests.
The second half of that definition (“supports its authority and interests”) is where the notion of “patriot” and “patriotism” becomes problematic throughout U.S. history, right up to the present day. How one sees our country’s “authority and interests” determines how we define our personal patriotism. Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York certainly remembers Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) wrapped in the American flag, patriotically protecting his country from the influx of “papist Irish immigrants.” Cutting’s final words are “Thank God I die a true American.” His death occurs during the New York City draft riots of 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, the greatest contest over patriotism the nation has ever faced. Ironically, there are people who display the Confederate battle flag today and claim they are real patriots. Of course, they are using Bill Cutting’s definition, which is that a “true American” is white, Protestant, and (preferably) male. While few will publicly support that notion in 2017 that does not mean it is not out there --- and we certainly saw how it was used during the 2016 Presidential campaign to push buttons.
During the 20th century we saw, time and again, how “patriot” and “patriotism” were used to define some deep-seated and highly contentious beliefs about our nation’s “interests.” Once Communists secured control of Russia in 1918, turning it into the U.S.S.R., true American “patriots” were expected to oppose anything that resembled the scourge of godless socialism. Starting with the Palmer Raids in 1919 and continuing through FDR’s New Deal (where the President was accused of being a “socialist/communist”), to Joe McCarthy, the Vietnam War, Reagan’s “Morning in America” and W’s “Axis of Evil” we have seen the notion of “patriotism” co-opted more and more by the right to mean some kind of unquestioning fealty to the “authority” of the government and “American values” (as they on the right define them). Certainly the current President played heavily on the classic white, capitalist, male, Protestant/Evangelical Christian hot buttons to rile the electorate.
My history with “patriotism” goes back to the late 1960’s when, as an American Studies (Intensive) Major I considered myself an extremely patriotic citizen. My protests against the war in Vietnam were no different, to my way of thinking, than my support of the Civil Rights movement. I thought Dr. King’s notion of an unpaid promissory note was true regarding African Americans and I believed Ho Chi Minh was clearly the most popular leader in Vietnam and we were supporting South Vietnam in that struggle because the largest building in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) was Chase National Bank. My notion of “patriotism” was based on an idealized conception of the United States standing up for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in a demonstrably moral way. Yet protesters in the ‘60’s were told, “My flag, love it or leave it” --- which feels a great deal like “Make America Great Again” in 2017.
While United States history has often been promoted as a story of forward-looking (initially westward looking) strivers, we know it is more complicated than that. We still have a segment of the population that denies the concept of white, male privilege as inherent to our national narrative (check out Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions if you need a classic example of this). It is crucial to recognize that those who deny that concept often claim to be our most patriotic of citizens. Striking down voting rights, denying health services to women, encouraging open-carry gun laws, and fighting against LBGTQ equality, these people claim to be true “patriots,” citing a confusing amalgam of Constitutional “originalism” (an incredibly impractical, if not totally, bogus theory) and some nouveau States Rights doctrine that would make John C. Calhoun proud. Like Bill the Butcher, they see no contradiction between their beliefs and what “patriotism” might mean to people they classify as “other.”
So, we’ve got people defending their Confederate battle flag truck decals while claiming to be true “patriots” without sensing any irony in that. This is not unique to our current situation --- it has occurred throughout United States history but it has seldom been embodied by the Chief Executive and his Cabinet in quite the manner we see it today.
Enjoy your Patriots’ Day and take a moment or two to consider how you, personally, consider yourself a patriot --- and maybe even talk to someone else about, just for "fun."