Readers Report: The New Patriot

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A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “The New Patriot.” Through the month of July, we’ll be looking at what it does and doesn’t mean to be a patriot in essays, book reviews, poetry, and short fiction. We wanted our readers to weigh in, too.

Edited by Susan Clements.

* * *

We live in the times of demagoguery. This must have something to do with our poetry;
the rottenness of our mind; and the rottenness of our language.

Tomorrow, I’ll go to the pharmacy on my street and buy a notebook with blank pages
without rules, tomorrow, I’ll rake the dead leaves in the yard, and all the past alphabets
erased, begin anew.

– Feroz Rather

* * *

I have taught high school social studies classes for many years, including United States History and Participation in Government courses. Many of my students have been first-generation Americans or immigrants themselves. So I think about patriotism and modeling the actions of patriotism quite a bit.

What is typical? Teaching about patriotic responsibilities such as voting, writing letters to the editors of publications expressing your opinions, signing petitions and even creating them, civil discourse of various styles. Fashion and clothing often gets included in the mix: teens want to wear buttons, T-shirts, jewelry, and other accessories that express their opinions. They want to create memes on various current events topics, and share them on social media.

A few years ago I took a more traditional path. I created a T-shirt with a design that had an ambiguous message about patriotism. A message that seemed strongly patriotic at first glance, but had a question behind it. Using Vistaprint, I designed a shirt with a stock image of a waving American flag and a two-line message of my own creation: “PAT RIOT” and “Just What This Country Needs.”

You ask, what is a “pat riot”? By splitting the word “patriot” nearly in half, what does that mean? Is it a mere goof, or something else? Of course, hinting at “riot” conjures up certain images. Chaos. Anger. Frustration. Coupled with “Just what this country needs,” what does that suggest? Does the United States need riots? Patriots? Is my shirt intended to be humorous or incendiary? Obnoxious or naïve?

I have worn this shirt around New York City and to be honest, most people do not seem to care about the message. But I have noticed a few people staring at it. I have had some ask me, “What is that?” or more bluntly, “Huh?” And then there was the eager person who said, “Where did you get that?” I had to tell him it was a limited-edition printing of one. He laughed.

Somehow I got a stain on the shirt and it doesn’t look that good anymore. I haven’t worn it lately. But I like the idea behind it, the uneasy questions it can prompt, the rambling thinking it can promote. I think I will print up another version of the shirt. What do you think?

– Ellen Levitt

* * *

There should be words,
not these words,
not pussy not fear
not perjure or suspicion.
A rally without god, taking
people against self against
neighbor. We shouldn’t know
about emoluments or taxes
other than our own, maybe,
maybe that’s what is wrong,
we didn’t believe we needed
this voice. To debate safe, debate
if no always means no always
means equal means home means
safe means fair means the same.
Ohio, New York, your street mine.

Instead, have trucker hats for buttons
for slogans instead of meanings
and digital fireworks, explosions,
not a call to something united
along roads without maps.

It isn’t our only choice, we can stand
together, a thousand causes
single file toward some shared belief
that maybe to be a man a woman,
to check any box on any form
matters less than the flesh we share
the earth we stand upon,
the work we’ve left undone.

– Lindsey Lewis Smithson

* * *

[Dictionary definition of PATRIOT: “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors, foreign or domestic.”]

By this definition, it appears the patriots are missing in Congress—the Senate and the House of Representatives. If they were there, they would surely have come forward by now, all 535, as a cohesive, concerned group, to declare our new president unfit as leader of the country and therefore a danger to us all.

The Congress has taken an oath to represent the wants and needs of its constituents. We have a “contract” with them when we elect them: that they will support, defend, and protect us through just-and-fair laws, practices, and ethical standards. We also believe they will staunchly defend our rights and freedoms against enemies of democracy.

Currently, the prevailing opinion—of the majority of Americans—is that our president must be removed from office because he is a detractor, an embarrassment, and a possible to danger to us. Many citizens also believe him to be an enemy of the people, as he is aligning himself with political enemies and against longstanding international allies. And where the majority of people in America believe our planet to be in jeopardy from climate change, our president has not represented our majority opinion; he has decided instead to ignore United States responsibility in the Paris Accord, in which most of the world is taking part.

Yet a majority of Congress is not standing up to represent the desires of the majority of citizens. Its members are not laying it on the line for us. They do not appear to be defending us against this highest-level detractor, a potentially dangerous enemy. Congress—our voice in government—is not standing up to the unstable president who professes to want to make America great again but is actually undoing progress America has made, over many decades, on a broad set of issues.

Tens of millions of true patriots, who commit to defend our country against enemies and detractors, are being let down by representatives who put politics before their sworn commitment to us.

What can we do in the absence of these representative non-patriots? We can show up. Often. At their speeches, in their offices, on telephones, fax machines, emails, Facebook, and Twitter pages. At the ballot box.

– Petra Perkins

* * *

My grandfather raised and lowered the American flag every day on a flagpole in his front yard. When we visited, he enlisted our help—tiny hands passing the cord through the loops, a quick tug to send the flag up and flying or loosen the knot and bring it down to be folded and put away at night. It’s a lot of care, having an American flag, and sometime after he died and my grandparents’ house was sold, the flagpole was taken out, paved over, and turned into a driveway. Which is perhaps the most American thing to happen, as far as symbols go.

I was thinking of this as I watched a racist monument being dismantled in New Orleans. It was on television in the middle of the night. Civil servants wearing masks and bulletproof vests worked in shifts, illuminated by floodlights, disassembling and packing pieces of a 35-foot-tall granite symbol of white supremacy onto the back of a truck and driving it away. The city council had voted to remove four of these statues, and the story now was about the controversy. Robert E. Lee came down later in broad daylight to scattered cheers and a brass band.

But he still rides in Richmond and Baltimore and across the South. In Charlottesville, a mob brought torches to protest his removal, yelling about pride when what they really hold on to is humiliation—the thing that keeps resentment burning—and chanting “you will not replace us” because they know one day we will. And there’ll be so many empty pedestals then we’ll need to have a plan.

It’s hardly a new problem; we’re not the only place with a past. We’ve toppled dictators and torn down their monuments, scrawled graffiti across marble palaces. An American photographer took a bath in Hitler’s tub. After the fall of Communism, you could fill acres of empty warehouses with stone plinths that once propped up Lenin. So we could up put new sculptures and create new symbols, or even advertise—it’s expensive real estate. We could just pave them over, make welcoming parks and fill old squares with new music.

Then again, maybe we should keep the pedestals where they are and leave them empty, an invitation for all of us to step up. Because even if a country is just a symbol, it’s a lot of work. It doesn’t raise itself.

– Alex Peterson

* * *

One earth. One body. No borders, but those of the colonizers.

To tax, to legislate, to lay down the law and light legalese on fire       over     to breathe, to bathe

in and drink clear water, and stretch tired limbs beneath a tree to sleep.

Patriotism only serves the master. To say I love this country is a lie. Place names cannot love you back, only people/animals can do that . . .

I reject the notion of patriotism.

At the heart of all humans is just the desire to live and let live without hurting anybody in the process. And to love and be loved once in a while.

Patriotism called for “manifest destiny”          which was always just a way to gloss over stealing what was not yours to take in the first place.

Greed calls for nation states, official languages and skin colors. Closed borders. The idea that there is not enough to share with our neighbors: air, water, good schools and jobs; is not true.

The idea of one group of citizens from one country are superior to another is false.

The Anti-Patriots see through the binary web of language. Uncover their eyes and ears, open their hearts up to other’s lives and live a different life.

Starting right now. Starting yesterday.

– Angie Trudell Vasquez

* * *

I played Fire Emblem: Fates, a video game, without playing the game that came before it, Awakening. The characters Inigo, Severa, and Owain reappear in Fates under different names and a different mission, but with memories of what transpired before, and they talk about the war they went through, the one that killed their parents and ruined their country and took so much away from them. I sympathized, I empathized, but I cannot imagine; I was not there; I did not see the carnage, the sorrow, the outrage.

I was not there, to fight their war with them.

It worked out that it was theirs to fight, not mine. And if you follow the plot of the game you realize it was for neither king nor country—the American, the Western tradition of patriotism—but for their friends, the people they loved, for a future they all went back in time to desperately try and prevent.

This all might seem extremely useless, a gamer getting feels like we do, a glorified Tumblr post, but then:

Memorial Day 1993, Saint Alban’s, West Virginia, Cunningham Memorial Park: My mother went to see her father, Bronze Star, Operation Anvil, Twelfth Army Air Force, because punching Nazis is a family tradition of mine, like moonshine and fried chicken.

My father and I waited patiently for her in the car.

She returned in tears, about how much she missed him, so much more to ask him.

She was fighting a war I wanted to be there for, like Inigo, Severa, and Owain. I wanted to know the conflict; I wanted to fight that fight, and be a part of it, not just sympathizing and empathizing but helping, too.

But it was not my war to fight. It was hers.

And before that, it was her father’s. Anything—anything to see his wife again, to make sure his buddies were safe.

He was a true patriot, but behind the lightning, in paradox, he was no patriot at all. Through the miasmic blood-choked twilight of the battlefield there is only you, and the people you love, and the people you miss.

And whether one fights a great dragon or the Third Reich—as though there’s a difference—this battle makes you patriots, all, not to a rallying flag, but to each other, just trying to find a way home, just trying to make the world better.

– Christopher David Adkins

* * *

The root word of “patriot” derives from the Greek word for father, so semantically speaking a patriot is someone devoted to a fatherland. As Nazi Germany demonstrated, too much patriotism for a fatherland can have genocidal consequences. Yet too little, and the nation succumbs to its enemies or fades into irrelevance.

It’s hard to strike the right patriotic balance because patriotism itself is inherently unbalanced. By definition, it demands fealty to the father while altogether ignoring the mother. A country, however, is no less a motherland than a fatherland. Its citizens, therefore, should be both patriots and—for lack of a better term—matriots.

In an ideal world, the term for devotion to country would derive from a gender-neutral term like “parent.” Instead of patriots or matriots, we could strive to be paren-iots. Unfortunately, pareniots sounds like a teenager’s insult (“Dude, my pareniots confiscated my weed stash.”) or a grammatical term that didn’t make Strunk & White’s final cut. (“Pareniots: the distinctive curlicues that surround the semicolon when the preceding clause contains both a homonym and a schwa phoneme…”) Let’s stick with patriotism and matriotism for the time being.

Embracing matriotism would force us to confront questions such as: 1) Is my country a nurturer? 2) Does my country love all her children equally? and 3) Does it pursue cooperation over ruthless competition? When exploring these questions, we must not let “issues” with our actual mothers sidetrack us, leading to unhelpful answers like: 1) Sure, Mom fed and clothed me, but she forgot me at the mall when I was six. 2) Although Mom says she loves me and my brothers equally, how come she remembered to load them in the car? and 3) As for cooperation, Mom’s mahjong group invariably ends with accusations of palmed tiles, toppled white-wine spritzers, and indignant departures that turn awkward when the slighted guests return ten minutes later seeking help finding their cars.

What would we learn from tackling these questions? Our country is nothing like a human body. It is an amorphous, genderless ethos that men, women, and the spectrum in between collectively perpetuate. In the end, we would reject both patriotism and matriotism. Nevertheless, we would pledge the nation our unflagging devotion, assuming it hasn’t abandoned the rule of law or the principle of equality (or six-year-olds at the mall).

– Keith Fentonmiller

* * *

There were an unprecedented number of UFO sightings in the summer of 1947. Pilots reported strange phenomena during World War II—fireballs nicknamed “foo fighters,” believed to be experimental German weaponry—but it wasn’t until a private pilot filed a statement describing nine discs that otherworldly visitations were offered as a plausible explanation. Reports peaked July 7, the day before the famous incident in Roswell, and sightings stayed at pace throughout the twentieth century.

The 40s and 50s were not quiet years. Americans were sucking through a McCarthian morass of suspicion and fear while the Republican-majority Congress was legislating away homegrown communism. The seemingly innocuous overreaches did the most damage: bills which deployed America’s “spiritual weapons,” changing the country’s motto to “In God We Trust” and adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, a move which dressed our nation in the vestments of faith, denying us the privilege, responsibility, and patriotic duty, to doubt.

“Doubt is not a denial,” wrote Walter Miller in A Canticle for Leibowitz. “It is a powerful tool.” Miller’s 1960 post-apocalyptic vision, about an abbey entrusted with the world’s scientific canon after nuclear holocaust, can teach much about confronting doubts, material and spiritual, as it stretches grim century to grim century, telling the story of man’s tortured climb into destructive self-eminence. It ends predictably, in all-consuming fire, but not before the abbot loads their memorabilia aboard a spaceship bound for another world.

Per the Doomsday Clock we’re the closest we’ve come to global annihilation since Eisenhower invoked God in his red-scare Hail Mary. But the dangers are varied and better known than in Miller’s time, and climate change has surpassed nuclear war as the greatest threat to humankind. At the same time, belief in extraterrestrial visitors has risen sharply after a decline in the early 2000s, correlating to the theory UFOs are an illusion induced by social mass hysteria—though an indicator of what’s to come.

They do not come in peace. Millennials haven’t known peace or security, but they’ve met bloodshed, financial collapse, intolerance, and persecution. Driven by their own government, in most cases. They share much with the Silent Generation, in fact, so named because global war, fascism, and paranoia inured them into silence. A mistake we can’t afford to repeat.

So we’re relying on you, young patriots, to keep your wits about you, not to get used to the hysteria, and change the cycle.

—Michael Johnson

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Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.

You can find Susan Clements at her website and follow her on Twitter.