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Editorial: Finding right words to define patriotism

At dusk Friday, unless a storm interferes, fireworks will color the sky over Amherst to celebrate the day, 238 years ago, when 56 people at the Second Continental Congress signed a document declaring the 13 “united States of America” independent of a despotic king. “To prove this,” their statement said, “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Their daring will echo tonight in booms and flashes of light after a day in which Americans everywhere enjoy time off from work with family and friends. The celebrations are simple, folksy affairs, but this is a national holiday about pretty big ideas: What does it mean to be an American? What should this holiday call up from each of us? What does it mean to be patriotic?

This week, the veterans hospital in Leeds is quoting Calvin Coolidge on its roadside sign: “Patriotism is easy to understand in America. It means looking out for yourself by looking out for your country.” Dictionary definitions stick to the basics as well. Patriotism is “love of or devotion to one’s country,” says Merriam-Webster.

But patriotism is complicated — and far more consequential than flaps over whether a presidential candidate sports an American flag lapel pin. Contemporary philosophers continue to debate the meaning, and risks, of patriotism.

Thinkers are still under the hood on patriotism, exploring its “moral credentials,” says the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University. For instance, is it morally acceptable to work for the benefit of others, but to rank those in one’s country most deserving? That isn’t how Mother Theresa operated, or why staff members with Doctors Without Borders roam the world.

Political philosophers debate the ways in which patriotism serves to guide stable and efficient government, without becoming risky nationalism. On that topic, philosopher Roger Scruton urges people to respect the difference between national and state interests. In the 19th century, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy argued that patriotism is for the simpleminded, since patriots hold their own countries to be the best — and they can’t all be right.

But revolutionary things do happen when people pursue a true and righteous common cause, as the signers of the Declaration of Independence did amid fear of reprisals, the king’s forces strengthening, as they acted to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

We believe patriotism lives in actions taken by citizens to improve their shared lot. That is what drove representatives of the 13 states to their historic gathering in Philadelphia, where they defined and justified their rebellion.

They found the words to convey humankind’s inalienable rights and said “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And they said “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In a nation that took pains to safeguard speech and religion, patriotism has many voices.

It is voiced by a government’s critics and defenders alike. It stands astride divisive national debates, as long as those engaged in debate are pursuing what they believe to be a nation’s betterment, not individual gain.

No longer is a foreign king, as the signers noted, “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages.”

Nevertheless, the spirit of America celebrated today flows from an engaged citizenry unafraid to reckon with its times.

The only ones not qualified to put patriotism into words are those who don’t care enough to try.

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