The shifting meaning of patriotism


Once a year, on July 4, Texans cede our Lone Star pride to that of a more elaborate flag. Independence Day is a celebration that—theoretically—unites every American under the stars and stripes of our great nation.

I spent July 4 tossing candy at kids who anxiously awaited the floats in a quaint Independence Day parade outside Austin. Like me, these children were, in the words of Lee Greenwood, “proud to be [Americans].” But I could not help but marvel at their naivety.

Most children are patriotic because their social studies textbooks paint an innocent portrait of the United States, but as they will eventually learn, American pride is a much more complex notion, and one that evolves over time.

In just the last decade it seems like the meaning of patriotism has changed.

2003 was a year of ardent patriotism. Media coverage of the US invasion of Iraq fueled civilian passion and George W. Bush’s presidential approval ratings, which soared to 71 percent in March of that year.

Gene Vela, a student veteran pursuing a master’s degree in global policy studies at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, was 20 years old in 2003, when our country first invaded Iraq. He recalls "blind allegiance to President Bush." Questioning the president, for Vela, was tantamount to being "un-American."

For those of us who were still in grade school at the time, the implications of the invasion were unclear, but as William Yoss, a Middle Eastern studies sophomore, recalls, the "euphoria of nationalistic pride" was palpable. Yoss likens the atmosphere to what he's heard about patriotism during the Second World War.

All in all, our version of patriotism in 2003 meant pride (more like hubris) concentrated on demonstrating our military power and with imperial undertones of spreading our freedom abroad. As history professor H.W. Brands notes, "Patriotism has always been most evident during war."

Fast-forward a decade. We elected our first African-American president, our presence in the Middle East is (supposedly) waning, and Osama bin Laden is dead. The ideas that shaped our national pride in 2003 have dissipated, and now it appears America is focusing more on what it actually means to be an American. For Vela, the blind allegiance he felt in 2003 is gone, replaced by the notion of patriotism as "working to change the nation for the better."

In 2013, patriotism isn’t a boldly worded Toby Keith song. It has an introspective connotation.

To Yoss, it is "a willingness to participate in the processes of the nation, not to revolt from it or blindly follow it." It seems that through these processes American society is progressing.

Not everyone in this county is afforded the same rights. With recent Supreme Court rulings, being a first-class American citizen is now a title afforded to more people — though we still have a long way to go.

When American political discourse isn’t focused on the economy, it is considering questions of civil rights and individual liberties, a subject that resonates for every American.

This shift in the meaning of patriotism is evident even on the 40 Acres, with the emergence of more diverse cultural centers like the Center for Mexican American studies and the Center for Women's and Gender Studies. These centers follow expanding diversity in the realm of higher education, yet their mere presence celebrates the more inclusive opportunity of pursuing the “American Dream” through a college education, which is increasingly afforded to more people.

This July 4 we probably saw fewer American flags in yards than a decade ago.

American patriotism, though less brazen, still exists, and the 2013 version of it is rich with diversity — and better for it.

Wilson is a Plan II Honors and history major from Canton. Follow Wilson @andrewwilson92.