It’s been 246 years since a bunch of disgruntled colonists decided that they’d had enough of transatlantic micromanagement.
There’s more behind the Declaration of Independence than that. But today I’m focused more on what’s happening and what’s ahead, than on where we’ve been.
Although, given the way I see things, that involves looking back, too.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair was the first world’s fair looking to future.
Its theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow,” its slogan was “the world of tomorrow.”
The exposition opened April 30, 1939.
German invaded Poland September 1, 1939. World War II ended August 15, 1945.1 I was born in 1951.
From a 1939 viewpoint, I’ve been living in “the world of tomorrow” all my life. It’s not been quite a streamlined as the World’s Fair version, and neither as utopian nor as apocalyptic as the predictions of dreamers and doomsayers.
Maybe I’d be more comfortable with words like “patriot” and “patriotism” if I hadn’t grown up in the ’60s.
McCarthyism’s heyday was over. Some Americans wondered if unwavering faith in HUAC’s wisdom was prudent.
Kids were growing up in a world with tech and prosperity their parents hadn’t known.
Disconnects between slogans and action, ideals and attitudes, were becoming obvious.
I was in my teens when McCarthyism’s dying gasps mingled with lyrics like these:
“…If the mind is baffled
When the rules don’t fit the game,
Who will answer?…”
(“Who Will Answer?” Ed Ames (1967))
“…Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace….”
(“Imagine,” John Lennon (1971))
I didn’t, and don’t, think “Imagine’s” “no religion too” will make this a better world. And that’s another topic. But I think I understand what Lennon had in mind.
To this day, the words “patriot” and “conservative” register as ‘crazy person lost in yesteryearning’ — along with jingoism, nativism and toxic nationalism.2
Unless I think about it. Which is a reason I make thinking a priority.
I’m a Catholic, so my views on capital punishment, marriage, and staying healthy line up with liberal, conservative, undecided — and that’s yet another topic. Topics.
So, if I’m not nestled into one of today’s mainstream political pigeonholes, and am Catholic to boot, can I be a patriot?
Well, yes. But it depends on what the word means. I’ll take Merriam-Webster’s definition: “one who loves and supports his or her country.”3
Some, not all, apparently decided that since what they’d been doing didn’t work — they should do it more forcefully.
That didn’t work either. Not the way they intended.
Maybe stalwart defenders of their status quo believed they were the last true patriots.
Calling devotion to their opinions “patriotism” helped me associate the word with nativism, hubris, and anger.
I now recognize distinctions between patriotism, nationalism and jingoism. I’ve also learned to appreciate the value and risks of using labels.
Time passed. The upper crust of today’s establishment are around my age. Many probably shared my youthful conviction that we can do better. Maybe they still think so.
The trick, then and now, isn’t just thinking we can do better. It’s seeing what will work. And doing it.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary says a patriot is someone “who loves and supports his or her country.”
Assuming that love of country stops well short of idolatry, and that my support is the sort that makes sense, I’m a patriot.
It’s an obligation, if I take being a Catholic seriously.
Living as if my faith matters boils down acting as if loving God and my neighbors matters. And seeing everyone as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:43–44, 7:12, 22:36–40, Mark 12:28–31; 10:25–27, 29–37; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1789)
Acting like love matters is easier when my reason and emotions are in sync. But easy or hard, using my brain is a good idea. (Catechism, 1777-1782)
As a Catholic, I’m obliged to do what’s possible in public life: recognizing humanity’s solidarity, and respecting authority. Within reason. (Catechism, 1778, 1915, 1897-1917, 1939-1942, 2199, 2238-2243)
Seeing my country’s system as the worst one possible, except for all others, is okay. Thinking that everyone should be Americans, or run their countries like ours, not so much.
There isn’t one ‘correct’ form of government. Different cultures and eras have different needs, and that’s okay. (Catechism, 1915, 1957-1958)
I think my country has much to offer the world. I’d rather live here than anywhere else. If that’s loving my country, then I love America.
I’d prefer living in a world where everyone could feel that way about their homeland. Not because it’s like America, but because it’s a unique moment in the life of a land and people.
Goofy as the ‘regular Americans’ of my youth were, mainstream “patriotism” could have been worse.
If the two figures flanking “Sacred to the Memory of Washington…” seem familiar, they should.
They’re traditional renderings of Lady Liberty, left; and an American Indian/Native American, right. And their postures resemble traditional images of sleeping soldiers at Christ’s tomb.4
Now, I have no problem with showing respect to the memory of folks like Washington.
But imagery that suggests America’s first president is on a par with the Second Person of the Trinity seems a bit much. Can’t say that I miss the attitude that made it popular.
Some of what’s happened since the ’60s is an improvement. Some, in my view, isn’t.
Today’s America isn’t just like the ’60s, but I see parallels.
A fair fraction of Americans don’t entirely approve of the status quo. What’s worse, from today’s establishment viewpoint, change is happening.
I very strongly suspect that’s frustrating, and probably frightening, to folks who have been near the top of the heap for the last several decades.
Today’s establishment wouldn’t, most likely, notice that they’re reacting pretty much as their predecessors did.
The details are different, but I see the same pattern.
Emphasis has been shifting from goals to fears. Slogans seem more like shibboleths than rallying cries.
Words like “tolerance” may be following “patriotism” into dead storage. And “freedom” still means “free to agree with me” in some circles.
I don’t like political sound and fury. That’s an attitude I had in the ’60s, and never lost.
I certainly don’t think today’s America is as good as it gets. And I remember our past too well to want a rerun.
But I think hope makes sense.
Change is happening. And this can be a good thing.
Again, I like living in America. I think it’s a good place to live. I also think we can do better.
Doing better doesn’t mean dragging America back to an earlier time.
Even if I could, I wouldn’t.
The ’60s happened in part because so many folks had gotten fed up with the status quo. We changed because what we had wasn’t working.
Yesteryear won’t come back
Today needs improvement.
That leaves one direction: forward.
We move forward in time, no matter what we do. Or don’t do.
Moving toward a goal requires having a goal, and ideas for how to get from here to there.
Daydreaming about ‘good old days’ that haven’t happened yet can be nothing more than an occasionally-pleasant pastime.
“…O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!…”
(“America the Beautiful,” Katharine Lee Bates, 1911 version, via Wikipedia)
We’re learning to accept non-English, non-Protestant Americans.
It’s a lesson we re-learn periodically.
Maybe it’ll get easier, as more Americans have ‘foreign’ names like O’Toole and Einstein, Ichihashi and Karmarkar, Liukin and Chandrasekhar, Di Vincenzo and Pei.
We’ll have more opportunities to learn, at any rate.
“Hair,” the ’60s musical, wasn’t patriotic. Not in the Fabulous Fifties sense.
On the other hand, I think one of its songs expressed a patriot dream of sorts.
A half-century later, sympathy and trust aren’t abounding. But wanting harmony and understanding still makes sense.
I’d be astounded if most of humanity’s many problems have been solved in the next millennium. Or ten millennia. We’re dealing with an enormous backlog of unresolved issues.
Healing wounds accumulated over uncounted ages is beyond me.
But I can suggest that justice and charity are good ideas. So is respecting humanity’s “transcendent dignity.” The process starts in me, with an ongoing “inner conversion.” (Catechism, 1886–1889, 1928-1942, 2419-2442)
And a better world.
Imagining alabaster cities abounding in harmony and understanding is easy.
Cobbling together close approximations of them won’t be.
But maybe, if enough of us work together, we can lay foundations for a “…civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”5
I think we can. I am certain that we must try.
I’ve talked about this before, particularly in 2021 and 2019:
- “Alabaster Cities, Fireworks, a Condo Disaster and Tears“
(July 3, 2021)
- “Memorial Day Weekend 2020“
(May 23, 2020)
- “Patriot Dreams“
(July 4, 2019)
- “World Day of Peace, 2019“
(January 1, 2019)
- “Citizenship and Being Catholic“
(July 24, 2016)
- “Building ‘The World of Tomorrow’: How the 1939 World’s Fair Envisioned the Future “
Evening Lecture/Seminar, Smithsonian Associates (December 3, 2021)
- 1939 New York World’s Fair
- Merriam-Webster dictionary
- Merriam-Webster dictionary
- The Met, Drawings and prints
- Apotheosis of Washington, John James Barralet (1800-1802)