America: Love it or conceive it

What should Rhode Islanders be talking about when we talk about patriotism?

July 5, 2023 2:37 pm

U.S. Navy Capt. James R. McIver, commanding officer of Naval Station Newport, waves to the crowd as he approaches the reviewing stand during Bristol’s 238th Fourth of July Parade Tuesday, July 4, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Bruce Katz)

A recent study claims that Rhode Island is one of the least patriotic states in America. The study by Wallet Hub arrived at this conclusion by measuring levels of military engagement, civic engagement, and volunteerism. It appears that being the home of the oldest, continuous Independence Day parade in the nation was not factored into the statistical analysis. The Ocean State ranked third lowest after Massachusetts and Arkansas.

But I am not convinced that the Wallet Hub folks understand patriotism very well at all. I can’t really blame them. I don’t think Rhode Islanders, and Americans for that matter, do either.

Patriotism is defined as a devotion to one’s country. In many places in the world, that can mean something pretty simple: a shared language and culture, and a multi-generational attachment to the specific geography. Here in this vast and diverse country, however, I think it is a little more complicated. American patriotism demands more from us than simple devotion. What do we love when we claim to be patriotic?

This country was founded on ideas about human rights, forged in a violent break from the status quo, and peopled by a continuing stream of immigrants from around the world. This includes a large and vibrant minority who were brought here in chains, in complete contrast to the founding principles. We are a multi-faceted riddle, and we cannot get away from that. 

American patriotism demands more from us than simple devotion. What do we love when we claim to be patriotic?

Many people in America struggle with the idea of patriotism. It is clear that our legacy, and our current status, is not unreservedly good. And we are often different from our neighbors in significant ways — culture, language, and opinions. Many of us find that we cannot engage in the kind of simple celebratory and sentimental emotion that may be possible elsewhere. We must actually think about this a little. 

What do I think?  Our patriotism can, and should, be grounded in a devotion to the ideas that brought us all together, even though we have yet to fully execute them. We should be proud to continue to resist the status quo of persistent injustice. Our patriotism should be a celebration of the strengths that diversity, and immigration bring to this nation. All of these things are our heritage, and they are worthy of our devotion. And our action, as patriotism should not be something we indulge ourselves in just feeling — it should drive us towards all forms of civic engagement. 

Perhaps nowhere in the country are the core American values more embodied than in Rhode Island. We were founded by those who claimed a belief in tolerance and human rights, and could not accept the status quo in Europe with endless religious wars. The diversity of our 17th century settlers, and the waves of immigrants during the Industrial Revolution are part of our founding story. Today, we still host an enormous variety of new residents from at least 50 countries. One in eight Rhode Island residents is an immigrant, and 20% of us have at least one immigrant parent. We represent the dark history of slavery and the slave trade as well. When we continue to act to ensure the rights of others, when we welcome immigrants, and when we find ourselves willing to engage with the legacy of past injustices, we are being patriotic. 

We are a very American state, and we should think of ourselves that way. And if we are not measuring high on the patriotism scale, then perhaps we should all be asking ourselves how we define and measure patriotism in the first place. 



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Ruth S. Taylor
Ruth S. Taylor

Ruth S. Taylor retired at the end of 2022 after 16 years as executive director of the Newport Historical Society. She now serves as a consultant working to improve the governance of nonprofit organizations. She also serves as chair of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.