Columnist John Paradis: Patriotism can’t be tallied by the numbers

  • Columnist John Paradis: Patriotism can’t be tallied by the numbers. File photo. 

Published: 7/13/2017 5:21:20 PM

Massachusetts was recently ranked 48th of the 50 states in “patriotism.”

That’s according to an organization called “Wallet Hub,” a financial help website that runs free credit reports and provides customized credit advice.  But their notoriety comes more with scoring and ranking such things as the “best places to raise a family” or “the best beach towns to live in.” Their latest contribution in satisfying our forever insatiable desire for ranking everything is a study that they say determines “the most patriotic states.”

The study based its findings on a formula that took the number of military enlistees from each state, the number of veterans, Peace Corp volunteers and percentage of adults who voted in the 2016 presidential election. For the record, Virginia and Alaska topped the list, while Illinois and New Jersey finished behind us in the last two slots.

I was asked to comment about the results by a reporter with the Worcester Telegram & Gazette newspaper as someone who, the reporter said, would know something about patriotism — since as a veteran who works with veterans I should be an expert on the subject.

I answered that in my humble opinion any study that based patriotism on the number of military enlistments is a flawed survey.  The fact that someone wears a uniform doesn’t necessarily equate to being more or less patriotic than the citizens he or she is sworn to protect.  Patriotism, to me, implies a willingness to sacrifice immediate personal advantage for the common good. This, I said, transcends just military service.

I also said that a more important measure would be how a state supports its veterans when they return home from service, and, in that regard, Massachusetts is nationally recognized as the best.  We’re the only state to require cities and towns to even have a veterans’ services officer.

Richard Voutour — the director of veterans’ services for the communities of Leominster, Lancaster and Sterling and a retired first sergeant in the Marines — agreed.

“A lot of people may join not just for patriotic reasons but because there are no workforce options or nearby colleges,” Voutour said. “Massachusetts has a robust workforce and a lot of colleges, a large vocational and technical school program. ... I don’t think you can judge a state based on how many people join the military, I don’t think you can do that. You can do it based on how we treat our veterans.”

Now that I’ve had more of a chance to think about the question, I would also add that patriotism is not about exceptionalism. It’s not about thumping the chest and saying, “I’m better than you are.” And it certainly can’t be quantified in some mathematical formula.

During my time on active duty in the Air Force, telling folks that I was from Massachusetts was often met with greater suspicion than if I said I was from the planet Mars.  “Oh you mean, you’re from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts,” they’d say, rolling their eyes. Usually, they’d then make some remark about Ted Kennedy, too.

And so the exchanges would always be a reminder to me that we Bay Staters face stereotypes. To many across the nation, Massachusetts represents elitism, paternalism, big government and permissiveness.  After all, we’re “Taxachusetts,” home of college elites and lovers of gun control.  We pioneered universal health care and same-sex marriage.

So when I heard about the patriotism study, I thought to myself,  “Well, here we go again.” I’ve heard it all before.

I remember an exchange I had with someone in 1989. Finding out I was from Massachusetts, this person said, “Oh, yeah, that’s the state with Amherst and Cambridge where college kids are taught to have disdain for love of country and basic patriotism.”

He then went on to say, “and that’s why your governor lost.”  He was speaking, of course, of Michael Dukakis, whose patriotism was questioned during the first presidential debate of the 1988 election.  It seemed, and still does, that if you favor or support liberal causes, you’re not patriotic.

It makes no difference that, of the 50 states, the total tax burden for Massachusetts is about average, or that our governor is a Republican. Or that Senator Elizabeth Warren is fighting to save the middle class or that we rank among the highest in the nation in health care, public education, and social and economic opportunity.

Patriotism means different things to different people: The ACLU, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the National Anthem, marching down Main Street on the Fourth of July, or even a Budweiser beer commercial on television. However, while patriotism may be whatever you believe it to be, I fear that it is too often mischaracterized and exploited.

According to Merriam-Webster, patriotism is “love for or devotion to one’s country.”

Some across America may say that the flag-waving, 100 percent “love it or leave it” Americanism is practiced too infrequently in Massachusetts. To those who would continue to label us, I would say, patriotism is not a bumper sticker, a slogan or waving the flag.    

More importantly, let's not revert to rankings that support an unhealthy brand of patriotic jingoism that says Americans are the best at everything, that America can never fail, and that nobody else can do what Americans can do.  

That, as history shows, gets us into a lot of trouble.

What America needs now is what it's always needed: a desire for continued progress for all citizens on our planet.  Let’s take pride in what our nation has accomplished but let’s also question our nation’s policies and be humble about our strengths and limitations, too.  That to me is what patriotism is truly about.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He is a veterans’ outreach coordinator for VA New England Health Care System.

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