When Did “Patriotism” Become A Dirty Word?

“Give me liberty or give me death” were the words of Founding Father Patrick Henry to the delegation at the Second Virginia Convention. Henry’s oft-quoted line summarizes both the goals and the risks that Henry and his fellow men undertook in the formation of our republic. They valued liberty and the success of the American experiment so much they were willing to die for it.

By Gwen Farrell3 min read
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Like so many other things these days, patriotism as a value that was once held regardless of political affiliation has now been rebranded as the calling card of extremism. This wasn’t always the case. But with tensions high and ever-increasing political division, is patriotism really outdated in our modern discourse? And when did it become a dirty word?

The Death Knell of Patriotism

There’s a common realization often observed by the critical thinkers of today: What was once a moderate or centrist viewpoint a decade ago has now somehow become a hallmark of the right-wing. Once-average opinions on topics like immigration, gay marriage, abortion, and other controversial stances widely accepted by the notable figures of progressivism years ago are now predominantly branded as the stamp of authenticity for the new right wing.

Patriotism wasn’t always a partisan issue. But it’s evolved into one as our culture demands that we adhere to an increasingly ridiculous standard of political correctness. Something as innocuous as celebrating Independence Day is now an offensive act to the thousands of marginalized people who were targeted by the creation of our country. Columbus Day is now Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We have fully committed to letting our past actions dictate our current and future behavior as citizens with convictions.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly patriotism became synonymous with other buzzword-y concepts like the ever-threatening “death of democracy” and the apparent rise of a new alt-right, led by fascist theocratic white males. But over time, as truth has become entirely subjective and identity has evolved into whatever feels good to the individual (regardless of reality), we’ve come to associate the concept of patriotism as something else that should be quashed, along with sexism, racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the rest.

54% of Americans believe that truth is subjective.

A survey of 2,000 participants by a cultural research institution found that 54% of Americans believe that truth is subjective. This belief thereby indicates that there are no moral absolutes in this world and no distinction between right and wrong besides what each individual decides for himself or herself. This is not just a talking point circulated on Twitter or hypotheticals that we posit among our peers. Truth has now become a postmodern concept dictated by the self and not by reality. Because this overhaul in rationalism, consciousness, and identity has been permitted, we’re now subject to whatever you or I deem politically correct, and equally subject to punishment if we transgress into what is (subjectively) offensive.

Judging the Past by Today’s Standards

Many Americans today may be able to trace their ancestry back to the early beginnings of America. This enables us to see how our own forebears made their way to this country and often failed to thrive but merely survived on their own labors. This might fill us with pride at the thought of our own predecessors playing a role in the formation of our society, paving the way so that one day we, too, could celebrate the fruits of their hard work. But some would never dream of taking part in such a shameful act.

The possibility of having forebears who defended the South during the Civil War or who sustained the practice of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries is enough to fill some of us with an overwhelming sense of indignity and remorse. But because we live in a politically correct society, that will never be enough.

This obligation of white guilt now not only includes just Americans. The United Kingdom, even in the immediate wake of the death of a long beloved monarch, was branded as the most contemptible colonizing force on earth. All of the advancements in health, science, medicine, technology, art, politics, economics, and education, to name a few, are to be patently ignored as cheap byproducts of imperialism. 

We constantly judge the past by today’s standards, even though it’s not only an exercise in futility but egotism and arrogance as well. Though we might believe we have the innermost motivations of our oppressive forebears down to a science, we will never truly understand the forces at work within them. But that isn’t good enough – they must be subject to today’s standards, no matter how absurd or ridiculous. In becoming increasingly obsessed with rewriting or “re-contextualizing” the past, we waste considerable energy on the pursuit of folly rather than dedicating our interests to the present and the future.

Patriotism Is the New Intolerance

Patriotism used to signify a healthy sense of loyalty to your country. It doesn’t mean a blanket approval of its past actions, however deplorable or horrendous they might be, but gratitude for the sacrifices that have been made to secure our freedoms, freedoms which even some of the most developed nations don’t get to enjoy. Today, the most we can hope for in terms of patriotism is fundamental gratitude and a basic appreciation for the opportunities we’re offered here, though even those sentiments are few and far between. 

The patriotism of the individual can drive the vision of a better future and make it a reality.

Many would equate patriotism with nationalism or intolerance, though in its purest form, patriotism is what the founders of our nation stood for, even when they were unsure it would survive. Patriotism now to many is equated with intolerance, whether related to race, gender, socioeconomic status, or any other prejudice. Patriotism, now known as intolerance to others’ backgrounds or lived experiences, has become intolerable.

A devotion to your country, which is the fundamental definition of patriotism, suggests a loyalty and a vested interest in the future and success of our society as we know it. In this manner, patriotism is absolutely indispensable to our identity as Americans who want to build our lives and raise our families here. This doesn’t mean that we condone far overreaching government actions or that we sanction every action of the politicians we most agree with. It could even be argued that the function of government today is directly in opposition to the true objectives of patriotism. But the patriotism of the individual, instead of cynicism and pessimism, can drive the vision of a better future and make it a reality.

Closing Thoughts

Patriotism is branded as many things that it isn’t, especially today. But when the majority of the politically correct’s most dogged adherents tell us to forgo patriotism as a sentiment and as a component of our individual and national identity, we’d likely be better off doing the opposite.

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