After I asked a dozen mid- Michigan leaders and citizens, I´m no closer to a definitive answer, so I´ll open with a metaphor.
Patriotism is a flame.
It can warm the house or burn it down. Some people are drawn to it, some run away. Some people handle it as deftly as Eagle Scouts and others are downright pyromaniacs.
Like fire, patriotism is a shape-shifter and a chemical mystery, but it´s just as real. These thoughtful replies from a diverse bouquet of a dozen people bear that out.
To draw a little more from each respondent, I followed up the lead question with two optional ones: What are you proudest of, and least proud of, about America? Is is patriotic to compromise? Some chose to answer all the questions; others didn´t.
Staff Sgt. Kimberly Bratic (Lamb)
Staff Sgt. Kimberly Bratic (Lamb), 40, was born on the fifth of July. "Patriotism in an inner feeling, to know that you´re part of a great nation that is so blessed to have freedom … it gets me choked up already," she said, surprised at the sudden catch in her throat.
Bratic went on 70 missions in six months with the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. She´s now on the staff of the Lansing-based Joint Forces Headquarters Public Affairs Office.
She remembers feeling patriotic even as a youngster. On the Fourth (the eve of her birthday), she stayed up late, watched the fireworks and listened to stories from her grandfather, a World War II veteran.
Her time in Afghanistan only deepened her patriotic feelings.
"I really did take being an American and being a woman for granted until I got there," she said. "You see how the women are treated. When you have something to contrast, you get a deeper patriotic feeling. We´re fortunate. We´re almost spoiled."
She acknowledged the tension between Army discipline and freedom of expression. The notion of dissent as patriotism doesn´t wash in the military.
"There´s a very thin line we step on as service members," she said. "Inside, we may or may not agree. Whether or not you voted for President Obama, he´s the commander-in-chief. Anybody who outranks me — I don´t have to like what they say, but this uniform says I´m going to do what I´m told."
It´s like a family, she said, with her superiors in the role of parents. "They´re older, they´re wiser, they´ve been there," she said. "When the kids grow up, or when the next person comes into office, it´ll be their turn to fix what they don´t think is right. It works the same way, it´s just a different family."
Most people asked for a little time to ponder what they wanted to say about patriotism. Not Andre Perry, 43, a reformer of New Orleans schools and founding dean of Davenport University´s new College of Urban Education, set to launch this fall.
I called Perry cold, but he was so prepared it was scary. "I pretty much have that concretized in my head," he said. "Patriotism means belief in a mother country that we all can be different and get along under a Constitution that allows for individual and group freedom."
He waves the flag for the "collective project."
"I don´t have to agree with everyone in that collective, but I do believe that we can adhere to a set of laws and principles that bind us together."
There´s a reason Perry was so prepared for the question. He wrote his dissertation on what it means to be a member of society. Patriotism came up a lot in the work, he said, especially when it came to undocumented immigrants. He found them to be among the most patriotic of Americans, in all but formal legal status.
"Patriotism is often disguised as blind loyalty to a group and/or some bloodline or false notion of citizenship," Perry said. "Or it can be superficial — if you don´t wear a flag on your lapel, if you don´t stand for the national anthem, somehow you´re being unpatriotic. In fact, the ability to have variations on all those actions is a sign of healthy patriotic society. The silliest and most patriotic thing you can do is force someone to do some superficial act of loyalty."
He dismisses the notion that the nation is more polarized than ever.
"We´ve always been polarized. We´ve always had disagreement. People think it´s rough now. Try 1860. Try 1954."
Whether compromise with one´s opponents is patriotic or not, he said, is beside the point.
"Of course you´re going to compromise as part of the political process," he said. "But patriotism, for me, has always been about the framework in which that disagreement can happen."
Christian Lotz, 44, has good reason to hold the flame of patriotism with asbestos gloves. The MSU philosophy professor came to the United States from Germany 14 years ago.
"When I grew up, almost any reference to national symbols, to talk about Germany as having some national unity, was almost taboo," he said. "It was an advantage, because we developed a critical attitude toward the country we live in."
German history made his generation wary of any appeal to patriotism, especially one that plays the religion, race or heritage card.
"In Germany, patriotism was very strongly connected, for a long time, with nationalism," he said.
The notion of a patriot as a good citizen who serves his homeland but also holds its government to account is an old one, Lotz said, going back to ancient Greece, but it was hijacked by the rampant nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries.
"Some people nowadays say, ´Patriotism is love of your country.´ That´s very empty and abstract. We don´t agree on what it should mean. Who defines what the ideals of the country are? For me, patriotism is also a critical concept. The left and the right will probably disagree on what the exact ideals of the U.S. are."
Lotz is applying for dual citizenship in the U.S. and Germany. He takes pride and finds plenty to criticize in both nations.
"Something I do find quite amazing in the U.S. is this protection of individual rights, minority rights," he said. "If you compare it to other countries, it´s an historically advanced idea."
With all his wariness toward patriotism, Lotz admits to feeling an inexplicable surge of emotion now and then, even in a harmless forum such as this summer´s World Cup.
"Germany plays the United States. I am rooting for Germany. Why?" he asked, as if hovering over himself, taking notes. "Where do these kind of things come from? We count the medals in the Olympics. It´s an indicator of how good we are or something."
Frank Ettawageshik, 65, carries two constitutions with him: the U.S. Constitution and his tribal constitution.
A few years ago, the former chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa found a quick way to remind federal lawmakers about tribal sovereignty. He had the tribal document printed up in the same portable size and the same colors as the U.S. Constitution that circulates on Capitol Hill. Every time senators or members of Congress tried to slip him the federal document, he told them he already had one and gave them a copy of the tribal one.
"For me, patriotism means pride in family, community, and nation, and the willingness to protect each of those," Ettawageshik said. "My nation is both the Odawa Nation and the United States."
Despite the horrifying series of wars and massacres visited upon American Indians under color of the Stars and Stripes, Ettawageshik celebrates American military sacrifices on the Fourth along with millions of others.
"History is replete with atrocities being done in the name of religion, in the name of state," he said. "We need to understand and be aware of all the atrocities that have been committed against native people, but if we dwell on them, if we stew about it and let those things take us over, that will destroy us. We need to do everything we can to keep that from happening anymore, but we can´t let that take us over."
It follows logically that Ettawageshik not only considers compromise patriotic, but part and parcel of keeping the dual flame burning in his heart.
"It´s a two-way relationship between the native nations and the United States," he said. "We work together on all sorts of things. When it´s not a two-way relationship, when the United States dominates and controls the natives, we feel a lot of unrest and disease comes from that. I´ve devoted my life to never shying away from the realities, but doing everything I can to ensure that it will be less so in the future."
Patriotism has a very specific meaning to Ron Acton, 61, founder and leader of the grassroots Jackson Tea Party.
"Patriotism is questioning authority," he said. "´My country right or wrong´ — bullcrap! Question authority. Timothy Leary said that."
Acton has little use for either major party.
"People say they´re patriotic and they salute stuff they shouldn´t salute. This government has spun so far out of control, we´re the Weimar Republic." After waxing wroth — in a genial way — over his key concern, the federal government´s chokehold over the nation´s currency supply, he circled back to the topic at hand.
"What does it mean to be a patriot? Not trusting your politicians," he said.
Acton started the Jackson Tea Party group in 2010 and claims 30 members at one time, dwindling to about 15 in the past couple of years. "Tea," he explained, now stands for "Tyranny — enough already" instead of "taxed enough already," his original concept.
Whenever I tried to slip a followup question at Acton, he fired another round of grapeshot at the issue he feels is crucial for modern patriots: control of the money supply. I asked him if it is patriotic to compromise, curious to plumb the notoriously uncompromising Tea Party mindset.
"You´ve got to follow the rule of law," he allowed. "Republicans and Democrats aren´t compromising. They have an agenda that has nothing to do with the people who voted for them. We´ve got corporations and banks instead."
He was back to money again.
"In 2008, there was a coup d´etat. Banks took over the government. Crony capitalism, fascism, whatever you want to call it. It no longer represents the people."
If that´s patriotic, he said, so is the Mafia.
"The two big parties are clubs," he said. "They can change the rules at the top any way they want. One is the Gambinos and the other is the Bonnanos." [He was quoting trend guru and selfstyled "political atheist" Gerald Celente.] "You´re not going to turn the Mafia into a nonprofit organization."
The Tea Party takeaway: "Don´t vote Republican or Democrat. Be a patriot."
Army capt. Todd Falor
Army Capt. Todd Falor of DeWitt completed two tours in Afghanistan, most recently in 2012, as a company commander for a National Guard unit that cleared roads of improvised explosive devices.
Falor, 41, said he feels the strongest surge of patriotism when he´s at a military funeral.
"Patriotism, to me, is serving your country when needed," he said. "Coming from the Michigan National Guard, I have a unique perspective. I had a soldier in my unit that was killed during an operation, and seeing my unit continue the mission after that — it made me feel they were true patriots."
He is man of few words. He didn´t volunteer the information that he has a General Douglas MacArthur Award recognizing officers who "demonstrate the ideals of duty, honor, and country," and "promote and sustain effective junior officer leadership."
Dogmatic patriotism doesn´t interest him.
"I´ve thought about this question a lot," he said. "I do believe it´s patriotic to compromise. I think it takes a true leader to understand, for the benefit of the nation, to compromise. You can´t just let it bog down and not move at all."
Diana Rivera, 58, Chicano Latino Studies Librarian at MSU, clearly had a few current issues on her mind when she gave her definition of patriotism.
"Patriotism means the freedom to question my state, my country´s motives and actions when it legislates in ways the hurt the common good," she said. "It means the freedom to question why students have to pay a higher rate of interest on their loans than do rich American corporations, why Detroit has been stripped of it self-rule by Emergency Management."
She´d like to bring patriotism closer to home.
"When you think of patriots, people shoot it up to the national level," she said. "States are part of the national scene. Pensions going away for police and firemen and civil employees — those things need to be questioned."
She doesn´t think the nation´s political polarization has been overstated. She values compromise and considers Tea Partiers and legislators who block President Obama´s agenda the opposite of patriots.
"When Obama makes compromises, he´s doing it to help the middle and lower classes," she said. "There´s that line from ´Godfather 18´ or whatever: ´Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.´ [It was "Godfather III."] Just when it seems like he´s about to reach something, they pull him to the right, but he´s smart to make that compromise. It may be small victories but they´re victories."
She´s optimistic and thinks the political poles will slowly melt.
"I´m sorry we´ve gotten to this point after such a momentous step forward for the country," she said, referring to Obama´s election. "But I´m not totally discouraged that Tea Partiers, or even the ultra-left, will stop that progression."
Patriotism is a "challenging word" to Ann Francis, 71, a Lansing peace activist who serves on the board of directors of the Society of Friends of mid-Michigan (Quakers).
"We have to take seriously what it means," she said. "A patriot is a person that loves their country and wants the best for people."
Her concern over her country´s heavy boot print on the world goes beyond its military actions abroad to encompass environmental degradation, economic inequality and climate change.
"When I hear young adults who are going into the military — there´s a fierce need to keep your family safe, your young ones safe, but it´s too narrow," she said. "In 2014, patriotism means opening up to a new way of looking at what we need to do to really love our country, keep ourselves safe."
She doesn´t think compromise is the answer. "Good solutions come from being willing to continue to sit at the same table. It´s hard to stay at the table but it´s the only way. It´s not compromise we´re after, it´s right solutions, which probably don´t involve compromise. Some things, you can compromise, but the big stuff — no."
Thasin Sardar´s biggest surge of patriotism came in March 2011, when Minnesota U.S. Rep Keith Ellison testified before a House committee investigating the radicalization of American Muslims.
Sardar, the 44-year-old outreach coordinator at the Islamic Center in East Lansing, watched with a swelling heart as Ellison reminded U.S. Rep. Peter King´s committee about Salman Hamdani, an offduty firefighter who was killed after rushing into the besieged Twin Towers on 9/11.
"He was in tears when he talked about Hamdani giving his life to save lives, and he himself was accused of being a terrorist just because he was a Muslim," Sardar said.
"I may be Muslim by religion, Asian Indian by birth, but I am an American citizen. It´s important that I celebrate the fourth of July along with the rest of America."
He believes there is plenty to be proud of where his adopted country is concerned.
"I´m really proud of the fact that America is so inclusive of religions and forms of expression. I cannot tell you what that means to so many of us. In socalled predominantly Muslim countries, there may not be as much freedom as we enjoy in America."
He is least proud of the way Islam is portrayed in the media, and by politicians like King, as a religion of terrorism, when most acts of terrorism are committed by non-Muslims.
"I wish they would call a terrorist a terrorist," he said.
Those who question the patriotism of Muslims, Sardar said, don´t share his understanding of Islam.
"In this country, you hear much noise being made about Sharia law," he said. "What people don´t mention is that we are also required to follow the law of the land. We are told in our holy book, the Koran, ´we are created into nations and tribes in order that we may know one another.´" Wherever we live, at least I, for myself, we swear our allegiance to the country we live in."
Pastor Stanley Jenkins
To the Rev. Pastor Stanley Jenkins of Lansing´s First Presbyterian Church, patriotism is an easily opened gate to a thorny garden of questions.
Jenkins, 50, called patriotism "love of country" and "an expression of the human need for community, to be part of an ´us.´"
"The real question is, does patriotism lead to fear of, or hostility toward, other countries?" he asked. "Does being a patriotic American automatically mean we must see ourselves as superior to others? With our history of American exceptionalism, I think this is something we struggle with — or ought to."
Loving America, Jenkins said, doesn´t mean thinking that every other country "has to be just like ours." Nor does it mean thinking the nation can do no wrong.
"I love my country," he said. "I love the hope embodied in our egalitarian ideals. I feel a patriotic duty to keep pressing my country toward the fulfillment of those ideals."
Jenkins is proud of the steps Americans have taken to "perfect our union," citing the abolition of slavery, civil rights advances, women´s suffrage, and "efforts toward justice for the LGBT community."
He´s least proud of "the current polarization of our nation and demonization of those we disagree with."
"It saddens me," he said. "It slows our efforts to continue the experiment we’ve begun. It leads to bigotry and jingoism. It lends itself to paralysis, anti-intellectualism, a forgetting of history, and a particularly damaging triumphalism." Jenkins said compromise is essential to any relationship, and indispensable in a democracy.
"Our willingness to adapt to the situation on the ground has always been our ace in the hole," he said. "On the other hand, the inability to compromise, especially in a polarized time, represents the very repudiation of our democratic experiment."
Sen. Gretchen Whitmer
Patriotism is not all that complicated, in state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer´s view. She defined it as "love for our country, a sense of pride in where we come from and where we live."
Whitmer, 43, said the complications come in when patriotism is "misappropriated," as she feels it has been in recent years.
"Some people seem to confuse patriotism with xenophobia or conservatism," she said. "I strongly believe that we can be proud of our country without disparaging every other nation and people in the process."
The things that make her most proud and least proud of America are intertwined.
"Our nation’s evolution on equality for women and people of all races is something to be proud of," she said. "Other nations are still arresting people for their sexuality, kidnapping women who want to be educated, and killing each other over religious differences."
But she pointed out a glaring exception.
"LGBT citizens in our state still do not have basic civil rights protections. They are not allowed to receive health care benefits for their partners. They are not allowed to adopt children and they are not allowed to get married."
This injustice, she declared, is "the antithesis of what America stands for." "You cannot have liberty and justice for some," she said.
Compromise, by her lights, is fully consistent with patriotism.
"Some politicians insist on using pride in our country as a wedge instead of a bond," she said. "They insist on fomenting dissent and disagreement instead of cultivating commonality. This is not to say we have to all agree. Disagreement is an important part of freedom, too. But we must not miss out on progress to score political points."
Thang Sat Mung
Thanks to a fearless attitude, and English lessons from Lansing´s Refugee Development Center, Thang Sat Mung gamely tackled the abstract question of patriotism.
Mung, 21, came to Lansing four years ago from Burma with his parents and 7 brothers and sisters. He´s taking classes at Lansing Community College and plans to be a digital media specialist.
"I don´t know how to say this," he said. "People think you can´t feel patriotism after just one or two years in a place, but I already feel this is my home. USA is where I belong, it´s me, my soul. People will have a different opinion, but for me, I´ll be able to celebrate the Fourth of July with all of my heart."
Mung and his family fled religious persecution.
"Here, you are free to talk, criticize the government," he said. "In Burma, if you talk like, that, they arrest you. They think you want to throw out the military and put democracy back in the country."
For the Fourth, Mung is driving to Tulsa, Oklahoma, home to a large community of Burmese refugees, to join a nationwide gathering of ethnic Zo refugees from Burma. Good food and plenty of soccer are on the agenda.
"I feel like we´re getting our life back," he said. "We´re not living for the government, living for others. We´re not serving people so we don´t get killed. We are able to think about the future, our jobs, our own problems. That´s what I love about the United States."