Monday, September 18, 2006

And I Thank You

"My Father thanks you. My Mother thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you.”

When I was about 10 years old my dad sat me down because he said he had an important movie for me to watch. The film? Yankee Doodle Dandy. Some seventeen years later the experience still stands as one of my most formative engagements in American patriotism. The sense of national pride, faith in leadership, and optimism for the future struck me in such a visceral way. This pride in what our country was and hope for what we could become was and is entirely thrilling to me.

These values are so deeply rooted in me that I still get a charge out of hearing the pledge of allegiance or singing the national anthem. Over the years my patriotism has not changed and I doubt it ever will. To me it is one of those constants. However, somewhere between being 10 years old and today America has changed.

At some point, I think around my college years, patriotism and its symbols became a punch line. It became some sort of archaic idolatry that asks to be mocked for its dated values. The more I think about it and talk about it, the more I feel like an outsider. A square. Yet another example of how “you can take the boy out of Ohio….” and all that. What happened?

Could it be that I live in the epicenter of cynicism? Is it general apathy that the world is going to hell in a hand basket so fuck it? Have ethically corrupt leaders sapped our faith in the direction they lead?

Could be.

To the other extreme is it the politicians and religious leaders who falsely wrap themselves in patriotic rhetoric strictly to meet desired ends? Decking themselves with the proper trappings until ‘Mission Accomplished.’

Whether you are looking to the cynical left or the hypocritical right both of these factions do our country a remarkable disservice.

You may be thinking, “Patrick, why so heavy this week?” Well I’ll tell you. This weekend my brother (of whom I’m very proud) was home from the Air Force. As part of his visit we went to the Intrepid Museum, a docked aircraft carrier located on the west side. It’s an older, antiquated monster of a ship that’s been around since World War II. (...and I’ll tell you just from this visit it easily makes its way into my top 10 list of New York favorites.)

One of the installations was a magnificent multimedia exhibit entitled A Day of Darkness, A Day of Light. This 13 minute featurette chronicled the exploits of the USS Intrepid during its actions against the Japanese in WWII. At one point in the presentation, a principle character informs us that if we had been standing where we are today in April of 1944 would find ourselves surrounded by blazing fires and the dead bodies of 69 servicemen – the result of two kamikaze direct hits.

For some reason today I was open and ready to hear this message. Sixty-nine people died where I was standing. Sixty-nine people would never be granted the opportunity to bring their grandchildren to the museum to share their experience. The reason that these people will never have this chance is because they chose to serve their country in a truly remarkable, selfless act.

Do you love this country enough to die for it? It is an extremely weighty and complex question. However, it is important to stop and think about it because it is a choice that others HAVE made, in the sincere hopes that most wouldn’t have to answer the question. It is these "others" who have made sacrifices so that we could deliver on our country's potential.

Where do we go from here? What are the next steps? How do we go about rectifying what has become a cultural problem? It is not an easy task, but it is one that is entirely possible:

1. RESPECT – The first steps begin, as they often do, on a grassroots level. Holding onto the real values of America and those who fought on its battlefields. Remembering those who served in Amierica’s diplomatic, political, cultural, social, civil or combat struggles. Not only to embrace their service, but perpetuate their personification of real American values.

2. HUMILITY / RESPONSIBILITY – Using self-restraint and prudence when referring to “American values” and patriotism. Commentators, such as Sean Hannity, have abused the phrase “Good Americans” to the point that he has dulled its meaning. Lies, hyperbole, and irony are exceptionally punitive to true reflections of Americanism.

3. ACCOUNTABILITY – It is only when someone steps up and says, “this isn’t right,” do things really change. Through the populous holding the media, politicians, religious leaders, and other influencers accountable for their comments a real shift in the American psyche take place.

In the meantime, while there is so much that worries me about the current direction of the country, I am exceptionally hopeful. There are egregious missteps in the current handling of Iraq and the War on Terror, and yet I am optimistic about our future. We have a long-standing history of reinvention and I believe that the US is due for yet another. It is so important to remember where we came from; to remember the sacrifices and mistakes that brought us to the place we are today. On a more immediate basis, it is important that we cherish and remember those who currently serve our country. So in the words of George M. Cohan, “My Father thanks you. My Mother thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you.”

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was really influenced this week by a commentary by Keith Olbermann remembering 9/11. To me it was truly profound. I encourage you to check out the following clip.

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