Well, 4th of July just passed. And the celebrations could be seen all around us. Flags flying, parades everywhere and fireworks to scare the cats – and kids. And it made me wonder – what does it mean to be a patriot?
We were sitting outside having a barbeque. American style. Burgers and all. Pretty American on 4th of July. Just us South Africans and an Aussie friend. Anyway… Our backyard neighbors were having their own party. Big family gathering. Even bigger griller. And meat to feed an army. At least a few divisions. And it went on and on. The crowd kept on growing and the noise kept on rising. We didn’t have a problem with it. They were having fun. Good clean fun. (And we loved the fireworks later in the evening – all courtesy of our partying neighbors.) And then we noticed the balloons.
Big balloons. All in the American colors. Red, white and blue. Stars and stripes everywhere. Almost every chair had a few of them tied to the back. Flying in the wind. This new type of flag. My wife and myself looked at each other and laughed. A very typical thing for us – we know each other way too well already! We said it at almost the same time, “I bet you those balloons were made in China!”
She won the right to blog on the “Made in China” joke. I really can’t say no to her. But it made me think of China. Again. And on the meaning of being proud of your country. Being a patriot.
And no. It wasn’t the “Free Tibet” flags that was made in China that made me think of China. It was my recent chats with a few Chinese in China that made me realize they are very proud of their country. Well, most of them anyway. Wherever I went they told me so. How they love their country and how proud they are of how China is developing. And, of course, the Beijing Olympics. For them the Olympics was about the Chinese people and not the Chinese government. A chance for us to meet China and the Chinese people. For them it was about them and their country. And not their government. I know, the Chinese government really secured the Olympics – not the people. But it still made sense. I know how it felt.
I have always loved my country. And my people. But I wasn’t always that proud of my government. The Apartheid government was not a regime to be proud of. Trust me. They weren’t. But I always loved my country. The mountains, the rivers, everything. And I really loved my people. It was an easy call. I loved my country. I loved my people. And I still saw myself as a patriot. I would defend my country and my people. But not my government. They were corrupt. In every sense of the word. If they asked me to go to war I would say no. If they asked me to vote in their rigged elections I wouldn’t. I would not listen to them and I would not support them in anything. But I would defend my country and my people. In my way. By protesting against the Apartheid regime. By speaking out when ever I got the chance. I would defy them. And challenge them. Because I was a patriot.
Over here in America people are asking the patriotism question. Again. And I am not just talking about Obama. Whether him wearing a flag or not makes him more or less patriotic. Like everyone wears that each day. Go do a Google search on the Mac and see how many times he wears one. Being a vet does not give you a free pass. Or at least I don’t think so. But this isn’t about Obama. Maybe only in an indirect way. The questions about him being American and being a patriot triggered some initial thoughts. But it isn’t about him. No, it’s about people who are claiming to be more patriotic than the next.
Supporting the war. That makes you a patriot. Being against gay marriages. That makes you a patriot. Not criticising President Bush. That makes you a patriot. Saying it is okay to hold people without trail and (maybe) torturing them. That makes you a patriot. Being in favour of subsidies for big oil but against universal health care. That makes you a patriot. Being Republican. Being conservative and against liberals. Listening to Rush and Bill. Watching Fox. Pro-flag. Anti-protests. And so on. And so on. It all makes you a patriot.
Or does it?
Were you a patriot if you supported the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII? Or were you a patriot when you tried to speak out against it? Were you a patriot when you supported segregation? Or were you a patriot when you acted against it? Were you a patriot when you lynched blacks and burned crosses and churches all over? Or were you a patriot when you marched against it? Were you a patriot when you supported a war to get rid of weapons of mass destruction? Or were you a patriot when you protested against a war with little evidence to support the claims of the President? Are you a patriot when you support a war no matter what the reasons? Or are you a patriot when you believe you can support the soldiers and still not agree with the war? Are you a patriot when you say other Americans are not American enough because they do not agree with everything you do or say? Or are you a patriot when you say that being an American means celebrating and loving diversity of all kinds – religion, color, languages, political thoughts, food and even stupid bloody movies?
You decide. I am not here to tell you what patriotism means in America. I can only tell you what it means for me as a South African. It means loving my country. Believing in my people. Caring for those around me. Looking after our land and the animals who live there. And speaking out when my government is unjust. Or just plain wrong. They are not my country. They are not my people. They do not stand for what my country stand for. Or at least not what the majority of us want our country to stand for. They are our government. They come and go. The people, the land and the spirit that make us never die. The meaning of being South African never come and go. It is more than the sum of us. It is that intangible meaning of us.
I am a patriotic South African when I disagree with my government when they are wrong. I am a patriot when I speak out against stupid decisions made by my government. I was a patriot when I protested against the government during Apartheid. I am a patriot when I speak out and protest against my government when I believe they are not being true to what we want our country to stand for – freedom, tolerance, equality and celebrating our diversity. And all the other good stuff.
And don’t confuse the patriotism bit with loving it or being proud of it. I love my children. But I am not proud of them when they do something wrong. I still love them. I still care for them. Deeply and without question. No less than before. But I also know I have to remind them of the rules. Our rules. Rules of respect, love and hard work. It does not make me less of a dad just because they need to know when I am disappointed with them. I tell them. But I also tell them I love them no less. I love them. I care for them. But I can’t always be proud of them. But I can be even more proud of them when they make right what they did wrong. That makes me love them even more. When they hold up their hands and say, “Yeah, I was wrong. Sorry dad.”
But driving a car made in Japan? Wearing clothes made in India? Eating food grown in Mexico? Drinking coffee grown in Ethiopia? Buying gas imported from Saudi Arabia? Reading books written by an Englishman? Watching a French movie? Having balloons made in China?
I don’t know. I like it when I see something made in South Africa. But I don’t buy it just because it is made in South Africa. I buy it (or not) because of many reasons – price, quality, taste, smell, functionality etc. Whatever. I buy it when I can. But I won’t buy a SUV just because it was made in South Africa. I’ll buy the less thirsty car made wherever.
A patriot. What is it? You decide. Because you make it. You build your country with every decision you make. The easy decisions and the difficult ones. They all count. There is no end. You build it every day. America is different from what it was a 100 years ago. Every single day you are still working on it. Keeping the good bits alive. And turning it into something new and making it relevant for society today. No end game. It’s not a game. It a journey. With no end destination. And every step counts. Every person count.
Every American count. Every American equals one brick. And you decide how strong you want this structure called America to be. You place your brick. You make it strong or you make it weak. It isn’t easy. And it has never been easy to build this great nation. It wasn’t easy to fight the British for independence. It wasn’t easy to free the slaves. It wasn’t easy to give women voting rights. It wasn’t easy to fight in WWII. It wasn’t easy to end segregation. It wasn’t easy to pull out of Vietnam. But it was the right thing to do.
Are you a patriot? Just wait before you answer. First ask yourself what does it mean to be a patriot? Define it. Look around and ask if this is what your fellow countrymen mean by it? Do you agree with it? What is your America? Happy you got all the info you need? Good. Now answer it. Are you a patriot?
Just don’t forget to look in the mirror when you answer.