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McCain Funeral Makes It Clear: Patriotism Is About Honoring the Things That Truly “Make America Great”

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by Edwin Santana

I’m Edwin Santana. I was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and ran for Congress earlier this year because I hated the direction our country was heading. This is part two in a series (see part one here) on what it means to be a patriot in a country where we worship heroes and hate those who kneel to take a stand against police brutality.

Our failure to define patriotism.
For too long, we’ve allowed the conservative right to define what it means to be a patriot. Following their narrative, patriotism means obnoxious flag clothing, blaring even more obnoxious Toby Keith songs, and blindly championing law enforcement and the military while making no effort to make them better. We’ve gotten so bad at saying what it means to be a patriot that we’ve allowed a bunch folks who wave the participation trophies (Confederate flags) they got in a war that literally split America in half, and resulted in the deaths of more Americans than any other conflict, to be “patriotic.”

Democrats are absolutely doing the right thing when they challenge police departments that kill unarmed African Americans or question a Pentagon budget that continues to grow at the expense of social services. Where we go wrong is we often allow our rhetoric to cast sweeping judgments over the people who serve in these institutions and fail to recognize that the vast majority of the individuals who serve are trying their best to support their families. In a marriage, you can’t critique your partner in a way that will leave them hurt and defensive; you have to communicate and discuss issues in constructive ways in order to break through and improve. Likewise, we have to be careful how we frame our arguments so our entire message isn’t overlooked because of a few wrong words.

Serving in the military or being a police officer isn’t a prerequisite for being a patriot. While we should be thankful for those who volunteer to risk their lives to defend our country, we should be equally thankful for a teacher who is underpaid and spends their own money to educate and mentor our children. For every police officer we thank, we should be equally grateful for an overworked nurse who struggles to deliver quality care in a broken medical system. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t be possible without those who defend our country overseas OR without those who fight every day to make things work right here in the US of A.

America has come a long way since our founding; Americans went to prison during World War I for protesting the war and civil rights advocates were jailed and even killed while fighting for equal rights. America in 2018 is a much better place for people of color than it was in 1918, but it’s nowhere near perfect or equal. The sad reality is that people of color can’t win this fight on their own and in his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr identifies this problem:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.

The fight to ensure equality and that the American dream can be achieved by everyone will require those of us who are comfortable to step out and lend our voice. It will require veterans to stand up and speak out against politicians who would use as us pawns to divide the country. It will require police officers to hold those accountable who use their badge and gun in ways that hurt our communities.

In Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic Convention he highlighted the wonderful things about the United States – but also where we still need work. One line from his speech stands out to me this day:

I stand here knowing that story is a part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

One final quote from President Obama as he eulogized John McCain earlier today:

Part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our blood line, not on what we look like, what our last names are, not based on where our parents or grandparents came from or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed that all of us are created equal.

To me, being a patriot means we love not only our country, but also all those who make it what it is.