What makes you a patriot? There are so many things on the 4th of July that inspire us – today, we asked our contributors to share the odd little found elements of patriotic flavor which extend into our lives from surprising sources and inspire us on a day to day basis. Here are just a few, and we encourage you to share your own.
Most treacly paeans to America are odes to Sacred Freedom, our place in history, or (in a more immediate, personal way) our troops. All fine things to commemorate, very fine, and moving. But what impacts us day to day, after the bunting’s taken down and the haze from the fireworks wafts away? This question requires some thought.
I am tempted to cite my daily interactions with agents of the United States government as an inspiration to my patriotism. Lest that sound even remotely like a compliment, I assure you: few things stir revolutionary, patriotic fervor quite like attempting to wrestle money away from Leviathan. Give me Liberty or Give me Death – after going round and round with them, either is good by me.
Sorry – I have a real answer. As a matter of fact, I have caught myself feeling deeply grateful to have been born in this country. It happens most often when I’m out in my garden, digging in my dirt. I own the property. I can cultivate a plant, watch it grow, harvest and eat it – or I can do nothing. It’s all up to me. There are places where the government tells you what to grow, how much, and where. They labor not for their own benefit but for the State.
What I do as a hobby could just as easily be oppression. Sometimes I stand up, lean on my garden hoe, and marvel at that. I say a silent, brief prayer of thanks.
Then I yell at the zucchini for crowding the tomatoes.
There are so many things you could write about that inspire those warm feelings of love for America – eagles and monster trucks and Mountain Dew – but for me, one of the little moments that inspire feelings of patriotic sentiment is the simple American wisdom of Hank Hill. Hill is an avatar for one of the things that’s been a great part of upholding this nation — a rare cultural depiction of the hard-working, decent, goodhearted father. “This is a carburetor,” he instructs. “Take it apart, put it back together, repeat until you’re normal.” He loves his truck and his know-it-all wife and his awkward son and dysfunctional friends, and is more often than not the blue jeans and t-shirt exemplar of responsible blue collar American stoicism at the heart of a maelstrom. He loves football and history and red meat and responsibility and using Robert’s Rules of Order to battle local cronyism. He knows that it’s good to be able to buy hammers and pants at the same store, so you can be sure they go together, and that if Ron Reagan dyed his hair — and not conceding he did — it was only to show his strength to the Communists.
Most of all, I appreciate how much Hank Hill demonstrates the importance of basic knowledge: of working with your hands, fixing problems for yourself, and espousing the values of general American resourcefulness. In one of the best episodes of Mike Judge’s series, Hill serves as a substitute teacher who runs afoul of the school for teaching the kids in shop class how to actually build and fix things themselves, but using tools that could be dangerous for kids. There’s a lovely scene where the kids, previously bored out of their skulls, actually become passionate about wanting to create, and Hill is overcome:
“Mr. Hill, can we do a whole unit on routers next week in class?” “Well, good idea, Suzy, but it’s not my class anymore.” “Can’t you ask them to let you come back? “I could fight for reinstatement but I got to get back to the propane game on Monday.” (all groan) “But that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your own dreams of wood, plywood, pressed fiberboard and – if you’ve got the talent – metal. You see, shop doesn’t have to happen in any special place as long as it’s well-lit and the outlets are grounded – because shop is bigger than any classroom or garage or stupid policy that makes tools illegal. It’s in our hearts.” (Hank’s eyes water and he turns away, composes himself.) “Okay, let’s sweep up.”
The Hank Hills America has in real life have been a great help to it in the past. We just need more of them.
It’s lot harder for me to get my Lee Greenwood on these days, but damn it, I still believe in America for one simple reason — no other country venerates hell raising like we do. Would we have landed a man on the moon or built the internet if we didn’t have a culture that tacitly tolerated teenagers doing donuts in the Dairy Queen parking lot or middle aged men on Harleys flouting helmet laws? I think not. Every time I go on YouTube, it warms my heart to see people throwing good judgment to the wind for their own amusement. Sure, it doesn’t always end well — but then you randomly see a kid from Middleton, Idaho do a forward flip on a snowmobile and you think, if only for a moment, the limits to human experience are broader than you previously imagined. So far the plague of Bloombergian politicians, helicopter parents, and personal injury attorneys have failed stamp out America’s foolhardy impulses. And thank God for that — you’re not really free if you don’t have the freedom to do dumb things. Taking outrageous risks may end in disaster, but it’s often the first step to achieving the kind of greatness that inspires the rest of us to move beyond our own modest ambitions.
Let’s face it — we’re still the greatest country in the world, and for me nothing better embodies American exceptionalism than our steadfast refusal to use the metric system. Our irrational system of weights and measures isn’t just unique, it reflects our character in a telling ways. For instance, our most basic measure of distance — the mile — is nearly twice as long as a kilometer. (Which is only fitting for a country who’s size greatly exceeds that of our metric loving European forbears.) As a point of fact, measuring temperature in Fahrenheit is actually far more precise than Celsius. Maybe our system isn’t as internally consistent as the metric system, but it’s a wonderful example of tradition trumping modernity. Outside the scientific realm, it works just fine for the rest of us who prefer to measure American superiority by the hogshead and furlong.
Also, Prince makes me proud to be an American. A wee man of ambiguous ethnicity from Minneapolis is the greatest musician the world has ever known.
We’ve all been there. You’re suddenly the middle of nowhere with an empty gas tank or full bladder, seriously regretting you bypassed that fancy interstate rest-stop 40 miles ago. You’re filled with hope when you see a gas station sign on the horizon, but that hope turns to concern as you approach the ramshackle building and its two rusty gas pumps (which, of course, don’t take credit cards). These places – and, for you ladies, their toilet seats – might fill you with dread or disgust, but for me they’re each a great, messy, unique monument to America’s car culture, small town values and the quirkiness of free market capitalism.
Each roadside oasis is different – some clean, most dirty, some empty like the mill towns they once supported, others bustling with country life and filled with tchotchkes and pork rinds – so, so many kinds of pork rinds. On one recent trip through Virginia, a simple, Spartan edifice belied a sprawling country store chock-full of taxidermy and cammo-clad good ol’ boys eating homemade fried chicken at the lunch counter. (But never mind that restroom. Yikes.) Then there’s my normal pitstop off I-85 that, for some unknown reason, has a huge selection of 80s cartoon hand-puppets (my daughter’s collection now stands at three – a chef, cop and soldier). And while each place is different, a few things are the same: you’re always welcome, always helped, and always, always, called “honey.”
After having my third child a week early, using US technology, I held my phone over her bassinet and “Face-timed” with my parents over a thousand miles away. My father announced to a minutes old baby, that she was one of the luckiest people on the planet earth. She was born an American Citizen who had two married parents who already loved her very much. She was already ahead of the majority of the planet. I laughed but I’ve learned from experience just how true that is. She was certainly luckier than a girl I met in Tiananmen Square years ago.
A young Chinese woman spotted our camera laden group of American students taking in Tiananmen Square. She smiled at us and started to unfurl a sign that our guide relayed to us was in support of religious freedom in her country. She signaled for us to take a picture of her with the sign. Chinese Policeman dressed in olive green military guard of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) quickly approached this young woman. A white van came out of nowhere. Our guides rushed to move us out of the area. During the commotion, I heard a repeated banging that made me turn. Each metallic thud shook the van. It was evident that the wisp of a girl was being beaten for her actions.
I had always been grateful to be an American but I had never witnessed first-hand what it meant to not be an American. After a long flight home, being greeted by a long line to get to my destination normally frustrates me. This time when I spied the American flag accompanying the sign for Customs and the long line underneath I never felt so grateful. It meant I was home.
Mindful of Wendell Berry’s definition of patriotism as “the love of a home country that’s usually much smaller than a nation,” I must confess to feeling the most compelling stirrings of patriotic pride when I’m driving on Interstate 64 through the Shenandoah Valley. Usually I’m on this road when Caroline and I are headed from Richmond, where we live, to Lexington, where her parents call home. Interstate 64 begins at an unremarkable town in Missouri and terminates somewhere just east of the Atlantic Ocean, and I have traveled over a great deal of it, yet the highway feels uniquely, specifically designed for the winding pathway it cuts through the beautiful Shenandoah, particularly as it clambers through the Rockfish Gap up Afton Mountain. The view is quite literally breathtaking, looking over a beautiful quilt of farms, forests and whisper-sleepy mountain towns: there’s no place on Earth, I’m convinced, quite like it. It’s the kind of thing a man could easily die for, if the need ever arose. I live an hour to the east, and yet it is still, indisputably, my Virginia.
The drive is quick: if you can get around the down-shifting tractor-trailers fast enough, you’re over the Mountain and past the view in a few minutes. And yet I never fail to be taken by it—not in the vein of a mawkish poetical panegyric, but simply by the placeness of it all, how fully Virginia it really is, and how it can feel as if you were not merely born in a place but made for it: I can think of no other home than Virginia and these United States of which it is a part, and no better sight in Virginia than that from Interstate 64 on the Mountain. When one is setting down roots in a state and a country one loves, it is useful, from time to time, to have these types of reminders.
One of the things that makes me most feel like an American is a freedom my parents have so far exercised on my behalf: The freedom to educate their own kids. I’m a happy homeschool graduate who only set foot in public schools to take driver’s ed. The resulting drudgery-free education is something few foreign countries allow for their citizens. In countries as “civilized” as Germany, the authorities regularly throw parents in jail and confiscate their children for the crime of reading some books and working some math problems together. Most public school teachers would kill for that kind of parental engagement. Homeschooling bans are an obvious outgrowth of international laws and legal precedent that often treat children as creatures of the state. In America, we may be getting there, but thankfully we’re not yet. Homeschooling is a uniquely American phenomenon (that is growing like crazy), and my parents exercised their education freedom to the fullest, to my great benefit.
I never tried or wanted to try drugs, felt almost no internal or external pressure to engage in premarital sex, get along socially just fine, thank you, and nervously managed quite respectable college entrance test scores. Yes, I have six amazing siblings, and no, we didn’t wear jean jumpers. I spent the time I wasn’t waiting for teacher to take attendance or deal with disruptive students or on concepts I already understood to travel the country as a competitive debater, get my first book published at age 16, read every book in the house twice, and ride horses bareback in the local pond. That’s a pretty great upbringing. Thanks, America.
Every major spiritual tradition talks about sanctifying the mundane. Christmas and Easter are spectacular, for example, but there’s something especially sublime in a simple sunny day or a phone call with family that brings you to your knees.
I say the same goes for patriotism. The Fourth of July is great and Memorial Day is vital, but I tend to see the stars and stripes in smaller things.
Like shopping at a supermarket.
The modern American supermarket is a technological marvel, made possible by dazzling innovations from refrigeration to automobiles. It is a profoundly democratic place: massive corporations are at the mercy of ordinary people whose decisions will either kill the firms or make them rich. And for millennia, the sheer magnitude of nutrition on offer would have left anyone speechless with relief and amazement. It is only thanks to the global spread of American free enterprise that these oases of abundance have become commonplace.
When I lived across the Atlantic, I often shopped in the quaint open markets for which our own cosmopolitans pine. The old-timey feel has real charm, but a deeper truth soon dawned. A nation that regularly devotes entire days to strolling through cheese vendors and bicycling to the butcher is not going anywhere in a hurry. It has lost its appetite for global greatness and sates its hunger with epicurean trifles instead.
Nobody delights more in deriding America’s predilections for bigness and boldness than people whose societies would have been vaporized if American bigness and boldness had not saved them. It is these folks who shudder at the thought of suburban families piling into SUVs and heading to Costco. How uncouth! But what are they really disdaining? A somewhat unrefined place, to be sure—but one where the money that busy and ambitious people earn places a dizzying array of choices and possibilities at their fingertips.
That’s more than a supermarket. That’s America, baby.
One of the things I love about living where I do–comfortably outside the Beltway, in rural Central Virginia–is being able to go out in my back yard on July 4 and do some target shooting with my semi-auto rifle. One year, my wife and I and a few friends capped off a day of shooting with our own version of fireworks: five of us all in a line shooting two 30-round magazines each, rapid-fire. It must have sounded like World War III, but the neighbors–the few we have–never said a word about it, because out here that’s just normal.
Shooting in your back yard might not be safe for those of you cursed to live in the suburbs, but if you want to experience what it really means to be an American, you have to find a range or visit a friend in the countryside and go shooting. The use of firearms is an American birthright that has everything to do with what it means to be free and independent.
It’s not just that the Founders believed that an armed population could defend liberty against a tyrannical government–the very issue that started the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. It’s also the whole history of guns in America.
In a letter to his nephew, Thomas Jefferson praised shooting as a form of exercise: “While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind…. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks.” On a more practical level, a musket or rifle allowed the frontiersman to go out and tame the wilderness alone, giving him the means to feed and clothe himself by hunting and to defend himself from dangerous animals (or people). The frontier and the gun went together, and together they helped shape the American’s sense of himself as strong, competent, and capable of making something of himself independent of the state.
Don’t confuse this with anarchy. A crucial part of the legend of the American frontier is about good men with guns establishing order and civilization by defeating outlaws. What is important about this history is that citizens took it upon themselves to build a lawful and civilized society from the bottom up, rather than having it imposed on them, top-down, by a distant bureaucracy.
America is one of the few nations in the world where owning a gun is widely considered normal, unthreatening, even patriotic. Being trusted to possess a little bit of power independent of the state is what makes us citizens rather than subjects. Which is why it’s so appropriate to exercise this right on Independence Day.