Patriotism Is Not the Province of the Selfish

I guess I’m supposed to know something about patriotism.

I’m a war veteran who spent four years in an Army uniform. I wore an American flag on my shoulder when I was deployed as an infantryman to Operation Iraqi Freedom. I saluted Old Glory whether standing stock-still in formation or out at a ballpark while off-duty. Even today, years later, I reflexively click my heels, lock my knees and raise a crooked forearm in rigid salute when the National Anthem plays. It’s rote, all muscle memory. I even lower the flag outside my office building to half mast and raise it again after a few days if I see an executive order after a mass shooting or some other national tragedy, even though grounds maintenance is not remotely my responsibility.

In the military, they indoctrinate you into all things patriotic, such as lusty flag worship. I was taught the flag was to never touch the ground, and that it should never be allowed to fall into ragged disrepair. It may have been lore, but we were told the ball at the top of a flagpole at every post contained a razor blade, a match and a bullet. If the fort were about to fall to the enemy, the last surviving soldier was supposed to use the razor blade to cut the stripes of the flag, and then strike the match to incinerate it before it could be desecrated by the invading marauders. The bullet was for committing suicide and, presumably, avoiding a fate worse than death.

From basic training on throughout your Army career, sergeants drill you on flag decorum, general reverence for country and so on. A lot of it is just role-playing, as performative as a kid in a Deadpool costume at a comic book convention. That’s why soldiers and especially combat veterans are so hyper-sensitive to phony, showy displays of patriotism on the home front such as before NFL games. Vets are notorious for cringing at the hollow platitude “thank you for your service,” a phenomenon novelist Ben Fountain aptly captured in one of the most memorable scenes in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Hearing such an empty bromide recited over and over and over again can be exhausting.

Soldiers know real patriotism involves service. Real patriotism can mean sacrifice. Even if a slick recruiter hoodwinked them with promises of free college and carefree globe-trotting, soldiers realize after signing the enlistment papers that they could sacrifice everything. In a war zone, you can lose life, limb, long-term health, sanity, your ability to walk, your moral compass, your very grip on reality. You can be disfigured beyond recognition and any realistic hope of romantic rapport, or scarred in ways others can’t see.

They tell you you’re U.S. government property. It’s literally true. In no other profession is it a felony-level offense if you don’t go to work. You can get Article 15-ed or even court-martialed for injuring yourself while in the Army. They keep such a tight rein on you, repeatedly stressing how you’d never be able to find a civilian job with a dishonorable discharge on your record, likely because no completely sane person would ever voluntarily go to war.

You can get snuffed out at any second while outside the wire or even while sleeping peacefully at a Forward Operating Base. A mortar round could fall out of the sky and envelop you in smoke and flame. Worse, you could watch your friends die. Your best friend in all the world could turn pallid in your arms as he slowly bled out after shrapnel nicked his femoral artery. You could become consumed by survivor’s guilt and succumb to the slow rot of post-traumatic stress disorder, self-loathing, alcoholism, and recklessness. A friend of mine died in a motorcycle crash shortly after returning home from war. I still owed him $40 after buying his TV off him.

Soldiers are patriotic in the JFK sense of “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” in a way that few people are anymore. Soldiers actually have some skin in the game, in the most literal sense.

In the civilian world, patriotism largely has become politicized and watered-down. It’s been co-opted by one side of the political divide and too often lazily conflated with passive support of the troops or with rural small-town values. It’s lumped in with meaningless signifiers like generic corporate bro-country, watery mass-produced lager, best-selling pickup trucks, and over-exuberant fireworks. It’s claimed by nasty, repugnant losers who would try to end disagreements with “if you don’t like it, you can leave my country,” and who seldom have anything more going for them than that they happened to be born into a prosperous, stable country.

Political opportunists and con artists have stolen the concept of patriotism, which has become so defanged as to be meaningless. How can one love one’s country without any sacrifice? How can you claim to love your country without giving of yourself?

This discrepancy between rhetoric and reality became painfully apparent to me years after I left the service when my hometown in the Chicago area launched a plan to restore a beloved historic arthouse movie theater. It was the crown jewel of downtown with a neon marquee, a vintage ticket booth, and generations of warm, fuzzy memories formed under the beam of the whirring projector.

An eccentric couple ran the place. He gave off a Jim Broadbent vibe, with a halo of wild frizzy white hair. She was more elegant and put together but just as quirky and delightfully off. Together, they seemed like they could be in a Hitchcock film.

They screened relatively obscure arthouse movies and then showed a steady stream of Miramax or Miramax-like films in the 1990s: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Elizabeth, Basquiat, Being John Malkovich, High Fidelity, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, the English Patient, Brassed Off, the Wings of the Dove, Rounders, Cop Land, 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Grosse Point Blank and Welcome to the Dollhouse.

The half-century-old single screen theater was a resolutely retro relic that lost ground to the multiplexes. But it was obstinate in its mission and had far more personality. Suits of knight armor adorned the walls, as did masks of Greek tragedy and comedy. The red-carpeted lobby was redolent with the cozy smell of warm popcorn.

About halfway through the movie, with little warning, the frame would freeze and the sound would screech to a halt as if someone lifted the needle off a vinyl record. Red velvet drapes would draw closed over the screen as though it were a playhouse. Intermission had come.

Snapped out of their cinematic reverie, movie-goers would shamble out into the lobby, where complimentary coffee and cake awaited.

Many rushed outside to smoke under the brightly lit marquee, or ducked back behind into the alley, far from the madding crowd.

It was a place people frequented on weekend evenings for decades, a pillar of culture not just in the town but in the surrounding region. You otherwise had to make the trip to Chicago for such movies. It was the heart of the town, the hub of its social life, a cradle of culture in the suburban fringe.

Nothing lasts forever, not even cinematic magic. One of the owners fell ill and died, and his spouse was advanced in years and didn’t want to carry on alone. They had a son, but he never stepped up to the task of taking it over and keeping it alive. The Town Theatre closed. The property went to a tax sale and ultimately fell into the hands of the town government.

A renovation project slowly plodded along, then started to gain momentum after a few years. Engineers first had to assess the building. Planners had to pour over case studies, learn about best practices. Elected officials had to confer about what was politically feasible, and what wasn’t. Finally, after all the dithering, a plan emerged. The town would spend about $3 million to revive the aging building, including by making critical roof repairs. A stage would be added for plays, comedy, and concerts. The plush but timeworn seats would be torn out and replaced to accommodate the modern day’s bulkier builds. The classic facade would be modernized with glass and a massive mural of the iconic scene of a diving cropduster chasing Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Volunteers would run the day-to-day operations of the place. It was an optimistic vision that appealed to nostalgia and civic pride. The community came together to support it. People from all across town chipped in donations. It was such a sentimental narrative of a town rallying to save its theater that it could have been in a schmaltzy Disney film.

The revived theater was supposed to anchor an arts district that would spark new life into the downtown. There would be galleries, artist studios, and an indie bookstore. As they have in so many gentrified neighborhoods, such amenities would bring people, who would in turn support businesses such as coffee shops, juice bars, and restaurants, maybe even a craft brewery or two. The gentle soft-edged blight brought about by an ongoing exodus to strip malls would give way to something fresh and vital.

Planning officials tried to drum up excitement over their vision, soliciting feedback on street festivals and teasing out designs. They enlisted volunteers to pledge their time and put out yard signs. But the slow pace of government proved to be a detriment. A Facebook group that purported to be a forum for town talk, but which was run by elderly cranks constitutionally and obstinately averse to any government spending whatsoever, started spreading mistruths about the project: that the cost had doubled, the volunteers were secretly profiting, that taxes would skyrocket and that the town had amassed more than $100 million in debt. Some of it could have resulted from ignorant misunderstandings but much of it seemed wildly fabricated from whole cloth. An afternoon host on a local radio station started piling on with even more vitriol. They were relentless at pushing their agenda, chipping away bit by bit at public perception with ludicrous claims like that the arts district would displace local businesses and replace them with galleries or that millions of dollars would be funneled to connected artists. They cited the poor condition of one side of the marquee as a reason why the project would cost taxpayers too much and should just be scuttled.

They whipped at least a segment of the population into a froth of rage, which came to a head during a meeting in which a consultant revealed the renovation project would cost $8 in property taxes a year. It would not result in any actual increase in taxes because of existing statewide property tax caps, and just would cost $8 a year out of what homeowners were already paying. Even so, angry older residents, many of whom would not be around much longer to help shoulder the tax burden, whether they shuffled off this mortal coil or their offspring stuffed them into nursing homes, stormed the city council meeting the next day. Cowed, the council pulled the plug on a project the town already had sunk nearly a million dollars into.

So much for the arts. So much for culture. So much for civilization.

To me, it was a stunning display of selfishness, humanity at its basest and most repugnant low.

At war, soldiers give their lives for comrades. They’ve been known to dive on grenades or rush into fields of fire to drag wounded platoon-mates back to safety. Soldiers run into, not away from, the storm of bullets and shrapnel. They get arms and legs blown off, spend years in rehabilitation, learning to adjust to prosthetics. Soldiers make sacrifices. They give of themselves.

Stateside, no one wants to give anything, not even tax dollars they’re already paying in the first place. People, many of whom claim to be patriots, would never begrudgingly contribute a cent to make their community a better place. The same flinty, Scrooge-like people in this rusted-out corner of the Midwest also have opposed a commuter rail extension intended to reverse decades of population decline, that would make the region a friendlier place for their own children and grandchildren. They’ve railed against having to pay for elementary education when their own children are no longer in school. They rant and rave online as if nothing is more sacred than protecting every cent they have from being spent in any way that might benefit others. In the case of the Town Theatre, they refused to preserve decades of history, to prevent the town from rotting away, from using the arts to lure in a fresh infusion of blood, a younger demographic that would inject some vitality. They wouldn’t lift a finger to maintain an amenity the town long had. Soldiers are willing to die for their country while other people refuse to give anything—literally anything—back to their own hometown.

The Town Theatre debacle wasn’t an issue of politics, or of policy, not by any honest accounting. A few burghs over, a rock-ribbed Republican enclave known for its enviable property values accepted a modest tax hike in a referendum to preserve the school system residents were so proud of. Small towns throughout the state saved their bygone movie palaces. At the local level, it comes down to whether you take enough pride in your community to invest in it or not.

The people who rose up against bringing back a historic arthouse theater are the kind of people who never volunteer, seldom leave their homes and are suspicious or contemptuous of their neighbors. They’d drive right past someone drowning in an icy retention pond. They don’t volunteer for military service. They don’t serve in the military or serve anything greater than themselves.

They’re the kind of people who got theirs and, well, screw everyone else. They’re the kind of people who don’t ladle stew in soup kitchens, pick up litter on beaches, plant flowers for neighborhood beautification projects, or raise wooden frames for Habitat for Humanity. They’re glued to the TV, or their smartphone, or their kid’s soccer game. They give nothing of themselves: no time, no money, no effort. They give nothing back to the communities they call home. They give nothing to their country.

They act as if they’re living on an island.

Laughably, many consider themselves patriots on the feeble strength of their political affiliation. Well, you don’t need to know a damn thing about the etymology to know patriotism means love of country. You can’t love someone or something and give nothing of yourself. That’s not love. That’s not love at all. That’s a hollow lie you tell yourself.

Too many people want patriotism to be a cheap lap dance, not a lifelong marriage. They don’t have, nor do they want, any relationship—any deep, abiding, effusive connection—with the country they profess to love. Too many people show no love to others, to their community, to the country we all call home.

If your work gloves aren’t dirty from volunteering, if you’ve never signed a waiver and picked up a hammer, if you’ve done nothing to better the place in which you live, you can scarcely call yourself a patriot. Do better. Prove your patriotism. It shouldn’t be a dulcet lie that leaves your lips and dissipates into wispy nothingness. If you claim to be a patriot, it should mean something.

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