Like many of my fellow Americans, I have a complicated relationship with patriotism.
In college, I minored in history, focusing mainly on early 20th century United States and Latin America. Studying those two surprisingly related topics — well, you don’t come out of it with the greatest view of our nation’s past. It’s a very different perspective than your typical high school course. Our country has a history of doing really shitty things, and an equally prevalent history of glossing over them for future generations.
Because of this (and let’s be honest, probably also because of many, many other reasons), I’ve never been your “rah rah” patriot type. Blind patriotism serves no purpose. Nor does blind cynicism. You study history, it shows one thing clearly: there is a lot of grey. Black and white rarely exist.
If you study past events — if you pay even a sliver of attention to current events — it’s easy to feel like our country has lost it way (if it ever had one to begin with). Jump on in the handbasket, we can all ride to hell together.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to join a group of World War II veterans on an Honor Flight to Washington DC. I’d never been to “the other Washington” before. From what you’d hear on the news, you’d think the city is Gomorrah reincarnated — a hot bed of corruption, the living embodiment of everything wrong with America. Maybe it is. Here is what I saw:
At every memorial we visited, I saw strangers approach a veteran, shake his or her hand, and say, “Thank you.”
I saw a protest in progress directly in front of our nation’s capitol, proceeding unmolested, with no guards or policemen telling them to move along.
I saw smudged handprints on the Declaration of Independence.
At the Vietnam Memorial, I watched a family take paper and pencil and create a stone rubbing of a man named Smith.
Also in front of the White House, I saw a smiling group of people — men, women and children — unfurl a Kurdistan flag and take a family photo.
One thing that’s easy to forget while reading the history books — it’s all made up of people. History if palpable. It’s complicated and evolving. The Americans who came before us did a lot of good — they also did a lot of bad. But if you take a close look at people… I think over the long, slow curve of history, our arc trends towards progress.