“Give me liberty or give me death!” said Patrick Henry, the great patriot of the American Revolution—but liberty to do what?—aye, there’s the rub.
Lord Bolingbroke wrote: “Patriotism must be founded in great principles, and supported by great virtues.” But more definitions are needed with the introduction of principle and virtue. Whose principle? Whose virtue? How much support?
According to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the word patriotism fell into dispute and disfavor in the earlier half of the 18th century. The difficulty with patriot comes with closely related and contrasting words—nationalist, loyalist, flag-waver, and jingo (a chauvinistic patriot, or one who supports a belligerent foreign policy).
Edith Cavell, the revered British nurse who served in World War I and cared for both friend and foe, said, “I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” She smuggled Allied troops to the Dutch border during the German occupation and for that she was executed by the Germans.
Now come America and Iraq—weapons of mass destruction and pre-emptive strike; domestic politics and foreign policy. Where is patriotism now? Could it be alive in a small Kentucky town? I went looking for signs of it at this year’s Mushroom Festival in Irvine, county seat of Estill.
Patriotism was the theme of the 13th Annual Mountain Mushroom Festival. I thought to myself, you know, you could say patriotism is like a mushroom—magnificent when carefully selected and handled just right, pernicious—even poisonous—if misunderstood or taken for granted.
As I sat watching the parade go up the local Broadway, I decided that patriotism could also be compared to a balloon—too much breath and it bursts in your face. A balloon with loose, indifferent handling will escape and confuse best intentions. Deliberately stick a pin in it and any balloon will make a pitiful sound as it goes wiggly, no matter whether it’s red, white, or blue.
The midday parade in Irvine was awash with balloons—red, white, blue, green, and yellow. They were not so much symbolic as they were colorful.
Here comes the honor guard. No mistaking the flag or the seriousness of purpose etched in faces, young or old, it didn’t matter. Disagreements were postponed.
Even a New Deal Democrat who said the present occupant of the White House was leading us into economic ruin was respectful when Old Glory waved from the middle of the street.
A woman was asked, “What does patriotism mean to you?”
She replied with a smile, “Love of country…support the troops…support our president.”
It was hardly a sampling, much less a poll, but the bright, cloudless sky was a blessing following the cold, early morning rain. There were T-shirts that read, “My cousin is a peacekeeper in Bosnia.” Another read: “Be an angel, be an organ transplant donor.”
“United We Stand” hats and sweatbands sent their own messages.
The Kentucky National Guard seemed ready, but wasn’t spoiling for a fight. A man sold wooden popguns, and that was about as far as weaponry went in the aftermath of the war in Iraq.
The Shriners were there in force, speaking mainly of helping children’s hospitals. The Hillbilly Clan joined in to have a little fun with the stereotypers. The local bookmobile took its rightful place in the parade—Dr. Johnson might’ve liked that!
Miss Estill County wasn’t meandering around with stomach piercings. Instead of talking on a cell phone, she was waving to the lines of folks back home on both sides of the street!
Churches had patriotic floats as if to portray the “freedom of religion” part of the First Amendment. Children wore face paintings declaring, “God Bless America.”
Someone standing nearby quietly said: “I feel like you ought to help out with your community.”
The word patriotism—love of and devotion to country—went undefined.
It was alive in Irvine, Kentucky.