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Patriotism alive, well and diverse

Matthew Lund stands by his house on Saturday, the day he retired from the military, while two of his children, Andrew, 11, and Amanda, 13, jump behind him.
Matthew Lund stands by his house on Saturday, the day he retired from the military, while two of his children, Andrew, 11, and Amanda, 13, jump behind him. "I painted the house because I believe in America, and I believe in the flag, and I believe in what I do. I spent 21 years in the military," said Lund. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)

“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.”

– John Adams 1735-1826

“No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.”

– Barbara Ehrenreich, author and social critic, born in 1941

Patriotism, some say, can be expressed by waving Old Glory, saluting a soldier or displaying a yellow “Support Our Troops” decal.

Others convey it by marching in peace rallies or criticizing the government.

Still others insist that patriotism is a way of life – that manifests itself in the manner we treat fellow Americans, in community and civil involvement or in efforts to conserve the natural resources of our nation.

Like everything else in life, love of one’s country often can’t be summarized by a symbol or an activity on a particular holiday. For most Americans, patriotism lies in a gray areabetween the die-hard who believes “my country, right or wrong” and the war protester considering a move to Canada.

Regardless of the differences, polls continue to show that Americans believe patriotism is alive and well.

Even before Sept. 11, a significant percentage of people told pollsters they were proud to be Americans, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Those numbers remained high through January 2005, when 61 percent described themselves to Gallup as “extremely proud” and another 22 percent as “very proud.”

“The events of September 11 produced overt displays of patriotism,” wrote Karlyn Bowman, resident AEI fellow. “People said they flew their flags more than in the past and they sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Those activities have receded, but patriotic sentiment is still very strong. … Polls show that Americans find a lot to criticize in their society. But they still love their country.”

So how do we express that love? Who are the patriots among us?

Is it the late Pat Tillman, the football player who gave up a lucrative NFL career to serve – and die – as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan?

How about Ehren Watada, the Fort Lewis lieutenant who refuses to go to Iraq because he believes the war there is illegal?

Is it the Boy Scout participating in a flag ceremony? The “raging granny” singing protest songs? The wife and mother maintaining a household while her husband is off at war?

Is patriotism an act of duty? Or is it enough to vote, pay taxes and obey the law?

On this Fourth of July holiday – the same year we observe the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – we asked readers to reflect on patriotism and what it means to be an American today.

“It is the love of country that has lighted and that keeps glowing the holy fire of patriotism.”

– J. Horace McFarland, conservationist, 1859-1948

Sometimes the most sincere and consistent expressions of patriotism can be found in a simple act of remembrance.

Since Sept. 11, Mike Nelson of Spokane has taken time to pause on the 11th day of each month, reflecting on the lives that were lost in the terrorist attacks and the courageous acts of firefighters, law enforcement officers and other everyday Americans. It’s a quiet way to honor his country, said Nelson, who usually wears a flag on his lapel or donates a few extra dollars to charity on the 11th of each month.

“Like industry and courage, America will always have all of the patriotism it needswhen the need arises,” said Nelson, who remains hopeful that his fellow citizens will continue the tradition of honoring their country.

Each time fireworks illuminate the sky on the Fourth of July, Devin Barber of Spokane closes his eyes.

He reflects on the people who founded this country and fought for independence. Then he puts himself in their shoes and imagines a battlefield of roaring cannons and firing muskets.

“The fear and anticipation of what they were involved in must have been unbelievable,” he said. “For them, there were only two options: victory or death.”

Barber, who’s 47 and the father of four grown children, believes the patriotic fervor these founders felt more than 200 years ago serves as a legacy for all Americans. “You see it in every soldier, sailor and airman who volunteers to serve their country,” he said. “You see it every time a person stands up to voice an opinion. And you see it every time a Democrat debates a Republican.”

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

– John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Greg Ridgley, who had previously served six years in the U.S. Army Reserves, re-enlisted in the armed forces and served for a year in Iraq as an engineer platoon leader with the Idaho Army National Guard.

“It was a heartbreaker,” said the Spokane father of three, whose youngest son was only 4 months old when he left for war. “I gave up a lot for my country, but it was a worthy cross to carry.”

From the time he was young, Ridgley learned from his grandfather, a Pearl Harbor survivor, that love of country should always come before love of self. So Ridgley gets upset by all the “misguided people” who are trying to change the definition of patriotism by describing their protests as patriotic.

“When you evaluate America through the prism of history, she has liberated more people from tyranny than any nation ever,” said Ridgley, who works in building maintenance for the Reardan School District. “She is the hope of the entire world.”

Bruce Burn of Spokane also believes patriotism “is simply putting the needs of your country ahead of other interests, especially politics.”

That’s what motivates him to support the war on terror and the war in Iraq and “not advocating pulling out before the job is done.” It also fuels his conviction that securing the border and making English the country’s official language should be a top priority for the government. “A true patriot will recognize that any country is defined by language, culture and borders,” said Burn, who’s 51 and semi-retired from a career as a commercial lines insurance underwriter.

For Sherrie Stradley, a 36-year-old mother of two, the meaning of patriotism should never change. “Anyone who allows their feelings about being American to be swayed one way or another doesn’t know the definition of patriotism,” she said. “True patriotism only ‘thrives’ and ‘wanes’ in the media, not in the hearts of those who love their country and are willing to sacrifice for it.

“I’m proud to be an American and I fly my flag every day, not just on the Fourth of July.”

“A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” – George William Curtis, writer, 1824-1892

Yet for a growing number of Americans, the meaning of patriotism remains murky.

“Where did you ever get the idea that patriotism had anything to do with the waving of a flag or displaying a yellow ribbon magnet on our cars?” asked David Giffen of Spokane. “In his heart and actions, a Boy Scout who has read and understands the Bill of Rights is likely to be much more of a ‘patriot’ than the SUV driver who thinks a yellow magnet says it all.”

Gary Jewell, a Mennonite pastor, posed these questions:

“Is the guy driving the car in front of me with the ‘God Bless America’ yellow ribbon more patriotic than I am with my message of “Who Would Jesus Bomb?’ Are those who have volunteered to fight this current war, whether they agree with it or not, the patriots?”

“If, by ‘patriotic,’ one is asking whether I believe in a national pride in fairness, hard work, generosity, peace, moderation, common sense, corporate and personal responsibility, liberty, humility and a general respect for the welfare of the entire planet, then by all means call me ‘patriotic,’ ” he said.

He’ll fly the flag off his deck on Independence Day, but deep inside, he’ll simply try to “embody the kind of American I would hope everyone might be,” he said.

“That is the best way I know to give honor to one’s country.

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

– Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919

For 83-year-old Al Mangan, patriotism has nothing to do with yellow ribbons, flying a flag “or any of the superficial public things by which people associate themselves with the majority.”

His brand of patriotism can be traced to the U.S. Constitution, especially within the Bill or Rights, he said.

Although he served in the U.S. Navy during both World War II and the Korean War, Mangan has been a pacifist since 1981. “Wars don’t solve problems, but add to them,” said the Spokane resident.

Because of the “illegal war” in Iraq, the “overriding militarism” of the U.S. government and all the wars “we have fought and provoked, aided and abetted, fought covertly and used other people to do our dirty work,” Mangan said he hasn’t been proud to be an American.

Along with their friends, Marge Ballack and Diane Lantz will stand together on Independence Day, holding hands and praying for hope, honor and equality. Like many families in the Inland Northwest, they’ll eat potato salad, barbecue and “thank God for our freedom and families.”

But many among them will question the direction this country has taken under the leadership of the Bush administration. As a lesbian couple who has been together for more than 25 years , Ballack and Lantz have felt ostracized by recent laws and proposals that limit gay rights.

“My patriotism is strong. I love America,” said Ballack, who’s 52. “But under the theocracy of the Bush administration, my country no longer loves me nor recognizes my family as ‘authentic.’ … I love America. America doesn’t love me.”

Regardless of people’s differences, it’s important to keep patriotism alive, many say, simply by being involved in community and civic affairs.

“Patriotism is almost anything but putting a yellow magnet on your car,” said Peter Sanburn of Spokane. “If anything, that is a shallow attempt to ease one’s guilt over drinking lattes and driving a car that gets 10 miles to a gallon in a time of war. … Patriotism is not about blindly following the president/commander in chief – that’s just being blind. … Patriotism is not about torture, illegal wiretapping, cronyism and corruption.”Patriotism is about defending the Constitution. Patriotism is about protecting individual rights and keeping the government out of personal decisions. … Patriotism is about questioning authority.

“Patriotism is about debate.”