What Exactly Is A 'Patriot'? What does "patriotism" mean to you? Day to Day listeners give their take, and Time columnist Peter Beinart talks about how the right and the left have some big philosophical differences about what patriotism means.
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What Exactly Is A 'Patriot'?

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What Exactly Is A 'Patriot'?

What Exactly Is A 'Patriot'?

What Exactly Is A 'Patriot'?

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What does "patriotism" mean to you? Day to Day listeners give their take, and Time columnist Peter Beinart talks about how the right and the left have some big philosophical differences about what patriotism means.


From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

(Soundbite of song "The Star-Spangled Banner")

BRAND: This is, of course, Jimi Hendrix's famous rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. Hendrix, as one of the leaders of the 1960s counterculture movement, had his patriotism questioned for this radical interpretation of the national anthem. When asked by Dick Cavett about the controversy, this is what Hendrix said.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Dick Cavett Show")

Mr. JIMI HENDRIX (Guitarist): I don't know, man. All I did was play it. I'm American, so I played it. I just started singing in school. They made me singing it in school, so...

Mr. DICK CAVETT (Host, "The Dick Cavett Show"): Mm-hm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENDRIX: It's a flashback, you know, I don't know about you, but...

I thought it was beautiful, but then, there you go.

(Soundbite of applause)

BRAND: All this to say that patriotism means different things to different people. And we asked you to weigh in. Some of you wrote in, and here are your thoughts on patriotism.

Mr. DAVID HOLLIS (Caller): My name is David Hollis (ph) and I live in Hamilton, New York. Patriotism is willing to stand up for what is right and good for the people, and not that which is politically expedient. It does not mean supporting politicians or the central government. Rather, it is supporting the ideals of the country.

Ms. CAITLIN HARDIGEN (Caller): My name is Caitlin Hardigen (ph), and I live in Shrewsbury, Vermont. I am 14 and I am going into 10th grade this coming year. Patriot, according to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, this word means, quote, "One who loves his or her country, and supports its authority and interests," end quote. Am I unpatriotic if I disagree with decisions and, for that matter, entire policies implemented by our authority? As far as I can tell of my own feelings, I still love and support my nation, and would never dream of doing something that would seriously injure it or its people.

Mr. KEITH NELSON (Caller): My name is Keith Nelson (ph). I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I find it interesting, in the age of the war on terrorism and the constant finger-pointing as to who is more patriotic, that many of the icons of patriotism that are so often invoked, are in fact individuals who were part of an extremist minority, and who waged active war against their government. It's hard to overlook the intrinsic irony of the situation.

Mr. STEVE HANSON (Caller): Hi. My name is Steve Hanson (ph). I'm currently living in Kenmore, Alberta, Canada. I'm an American in the process of moving back to the United States. Since we've accepted the concept of globalization, I think we have to think more in terms of being earthlings, than one country or another, and if people don't assume that type of thinking, then we're just going to continue to try to outdo our neighbors, and we'll just end up consuming the planet faster and faster.

Ms. RHONDA WELSH (Caller): My name is Rhonda Welsh (ph), and I live in Longview, Washington. To me, patriotism is like a good marriage. You put your best into it, and you support the choices that are made, regardless of whether you necessarily agree with them or not. You realize that all things cannot go your way and compromise is always necessary.

BRAND: And thanks to everyone who wrote in to us. Well, like a good marriage, or maybe a bad one, liberals and conservatives have to live together in their country, and they do have very different ideas about what patriotism is. Someone who explores that is Peter Beinart in a cover article in this week's Time Magazine, and Peter is here now. Peter, how do liberals and conservatives view patriotism?

Mr. PETER BEINART (Columnist, Time Magazine): I think conservatives tend to associate patriotism more with affirmation, with statements of love of country. Liberals tend to focus more on patriotism as a descent, patriotism on holding your government accountable for the ways in which it's not living up to one's - your country's ideals as you see them.

BRAND: So, I see that you liken patriotism kind of like our last listener there, patriotism, on the conservatives part, at least, to it being sort of like your family. Like, you might not agree with them on everything, but you love them just because they're your family.

Mr. BEINART: Yes. I think that's a point that, in general, conservatives are more comfortable with than liberals. I think both conservatives and liberals believe that America is an unusual country and that we're founded on certain ideals. But I think conservatives are more comfortable, by and large, with the recognition that you can only take that so far, that you also love America, not necessarily because it embodies universal ideals, but simply because it's yours.

BRAND: Well, not to boil it down to something too simplistic, but does it also reside in the fact that one side looks at the past and one side looks at the future?

Mr. BEINART: It gets also an important part of that. I think for conservatives, again, you know, conservatives tend to think about conserving. I think patriotism involve a reverence for the past, on appreciation for what America has achieved. And I think for liberals, there's more of an awareness of the degree to which America in its past has not lived up to its ideals, and more of a sense that the truest kind of patriotism is a struggle to make America live up to its ideals more in the future than it has in the past.

BRAND: And do you see these two ideals as reflected in the two presidential candidates?

Mr. BEINART: To some degree, yeah. If you look at John McCain's 1999 book, he called it, "Faith of My Fathers." And if you look at McCain's life, a lot of it has to do with kind of reaffirming and replicating the sense of patriotic duty that was deeply instilled in his families, since his father and grandfather were admirals. He also served in the Navy. Barack Obama's story is much more a story about personal reinvention. You know, his father is an immigrant from Kenya. Doesn't have on his father's side deep roots in the United States.

So, he could not have really written a book called "Faith of My Fathers." His book was called, "Dreams of My Father." And in many ways, Obama - the most important things about Obama's life, he's spun from whole cloth. He chose his own religious faith. He chose his own profession, his own city. He even constructed his own racial identity, which was, he's acknowledged, was a choice. And I'm think in that way, he represents what I think is more of the liberal spirit of America as a great country, because it involves the possibility of constant change and of improvement, that we make the future better than the past.

BRAND: And what are the downsides of the two views?

Mr. BEINART: I think the danger of liberal patriotism is that it can be too harsh. Liberals will often tend to say the highest form of patriotism is criticism, is dissent. But if you think about a country a little bit like one family, one would probably not say that I express my love of my family primarily by criticizing it when it does things that are wrong. The criticism has to be loving. It has to also be connected to statements of affirmation. On the conservative side, I think the danger is my country, right or wrong, a sense of - a kind of blind obedience to authority, and such a deep reverence for America's symbols that one is not aware enough of that darker history that we have.

BRAND: And can these two arguments be seen? I mean, rather superficially, but nonetheless, it's been a point of debate over whether or not Barack Obama should be wearing a flag pin.

Mr. BEINART: Yes. I think that's what it's boiled down to. And it's easy to say, well, we shouldn't be talking about these kinds of things in a presidential election, when we have so many important issues. But it is striking how often issues of patriotism and symbolism come up in presidential campaign. And I think that's because the presidency is a symbolic job. Americans don't only think of their president as someone who's been hired to get bills passed. They want to look at that person and say, this is the embodiment for me of what it means to be an American, to some degree, that person. And that's why, I think, people who ignore the symbolic aspects of presidential campaigns do so at their peril.

BRAND: Peter Beinart. His article, "The Real Meaning of Patriotism," is in this week's Time Magazine. It's on the cover, actually. Peter Beinart, thanks for joining us.

Mr. BEINART: Thank you.

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