This is a piece first run for the election four years ago, updated a bit for today.
Election Day is not a national holiday, at least not in the traditional sense. But it is the one day that our nation asks something from all of us, even if it’s just a few minutes. If you follow calle ocho through Little Havana in Miami on Election Day, you’ll see a long line houses with the red white and blue of US and Cuban flags stretching off into the horizon. Families sometimes come together across generations, as with any holiday, before they go off to vote. Cuban exiles in Miami are a people that know what it means to be free because freedom and good times are often best measured against their opposite.
That’s not the case with most of our nation. Hard times have hit us all very hard because until recently so few of us knew what that’s like. What we are asked to provide each time this holiday comes around, our opinion, often comes out as anger because we don’t know what else to measure our feelings by. A call to “patriotism” is often one-dimensional and narrow because we don’t understand the richness of what it means to be one people, free and united.
A lot of Americans seem to take love of country like a spouse. They stress duty and obligation along with an unflinching commitment to the family. They dare not even look at other nations for fear they might actually see something they like. Patriotism is a sacred bond that cannot be questioned.
Some other Americans measure their patriotism the way they might love their parents. They’re grateful for everything that they’ve gotten, but all the same feel that it’s best to live some distance away, keeping the contact at a minimum. It’s not that they don’t love their nation, it’s just that it drives them crazy when they get too into it. Small doses keep the love alive but the frustration at bay.
I love my nation in a different way. I love the United States as I do my children. Just when it seems incredibly lazy and frustrating, my nation does something incredibly smart or kind or creative that reminds me why I love it so much. Its imagination and possibility is so much more than I can ever hope understand. I can’t help but be proud of it and gladly nurture it the best I can, hoping that I’m at least adequate.
This view of patriotism, where I am the father rather than my homeland, may seem a bit backwards. I see this as the only view that fits a nation based on an experiment that has always welcomed anyone into its family. Our Founding Fathers, like me, didn’t exactly know what they were doing as parents and simply set out to do their best. Each generation has taken up their challenge and become fathers and mothers in their own time. My time is now.
It’s not always easy, of course. When Fox news talks about the latest strange distraction they’ve boiled up into a stew, I cringe. When my liberal friends don’t understand the crunch facing the promises we’ve made to seniors in Medicare and Social Security, I become very frustrated. When Congress plays games and never gets anything done I sometimes boil over in anger, wanting to scream. It’s a lot like watching kids stray and knowing that your job is to tell them like it is and wait for them to understand. They’ll know that you say all this stuff because you love them on their own time.
I’ve always done my best to represent my nation and show my love the way any proud father would. When I’ve wandered around Ireland or Germany or Mexico people could tell I was an American or Ami or Yanqui right away; I did my best to “Fly the Flag” and represent my nation well. If they asked me, I’d gladly explain that love much the way I could open my wallet and show pictures of my kids.
These adventures in my life have always taught me about other people. More importantly, they taught me about myself and my own homeland. People forced me to think about who I am and why I care well enough that I could explain it to people that had no reason to understand what the Hell I was saying. I learned more about my own people than anything else. I had something to measure us by.
Those of us who’ve seen the alternative know that for its faults, this is still a land of freedom and opportunity. This is a nation that can still amaze and surprise us, if we can find a way to nurture it and live up to the challenge each generation of Founding Parents has given us. We are a family,of a kind, and when we’re all together we can recount the old stories and understand all of this as we pass it on to another generation.
Please fly the Stars and Stripes this Election Day and vote – not out of anger or pure obligation, but out of the complicated love and hope of a parent. Thank you.