Rick Holmes: The measure of patriotism

Rick Holmes

If you didn't notice that Saturday was Flag Day, don't feel bad. It's probably because American flags are so ubiquitous -- on bumper stickers and car radio antennas, T-shirts and beach towels, decorating front porches and car dealerships in every season -- that every day feels like Flag Day.

It's an official holiday, though not official enough to merit a three-day weekend. Patriotic sorts have organized special events. Framingham, Mass., is hosting a Civil War re-enactment as part of a weekend celebration. An Ashland Boy Scout organized postal carriers to collect worn-out flags for respectful disposal. A church in Hudson has planted more than 4,600 small flags in its front and side yards, one for every U.S. soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And Barack Obama has, no doubt, proudly raised the flag to his lapel. Just like every other politician from the White House to town hall.

Flag Day celebrates America's most powerful symbol of patriotism -- so powerful that some people confuse flag-waving with patriotism itself. They seem to think that the bigger your flag, the stronger your patriotism. I've often wondered why car dealers, along with some other businesses, fly grossly oversized flags. Do they think people are more likely to buy a car from someone ostentatiously patriotic? Or are they just trying to get around zoning laws that limit how big their signs can be?

Flag lapel pins raise similar questions. Are those who wear them really patriotic or are they just advertising their patriotism?

When ABC's Charles Gibson pressed Obama on the lapel flag question at a debate in Philadelphia in April, I thought Obama should have noted that neither Gibson nor the other moderator were wearing flags in their lapels that night, nor was Hillary Clinton. So why was he the only one whose patriotism was being questioned because he had an empty lapel?

That would have drawn attention to one of the least attractive ways the flag is used these days: as a political weapon. The question of Obama's lapel and what it said about his patriotism was "all over the Internet," Gibson explained. It was there because Obama's opponents are intentionally using rumors about patriotism as a political weapon.

Instead, Obama tried to explain to Gibson that he stopped wearing the flag in his lapel shortly after 9/11, when everyone else seemed to be slapping American flags on every available surface. There's more to patriotism than wearing a flag, he said, including protesting the Iraq war.

His response didn't have much impact, in part because it seemed like he was trying to change the subject to the war. Soon enough, the flag started reappearing on his lapel, looking more like a shield against slurs than an expression of values.

But the flap raises a question worth pondering this Flag Day weekend: If displaying the flag doesn't prove your patriotism, what does?

There is a difference between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is love of your country and loyalty to its interests. Patriotism is a commitment to the values that are inseparable from the American nation. Those values begin, as does the Constitution, with the phrase "We the People."

The United States begins with its citizens, not its rulers, its flag, or even its geography. So the measure of patriotism should begin with how well we carry out the obligations of citizenship. Here's a short list:

- Voting. Those who claim to love their country are obliged to participate in its governance -- and not just in presidential elections. In most municipal elections, it's considered a great turnout if a third of the registered voters cast ballots, and half of all eligible voters aren't even registered.

- Jury duty. The right to be tried by a jury of your peers is a fundamental American value. A lawyer friend told me he is constantly impressed by the conscientiousness with which the jurors he argues before perform their duties. But for some people, avoiding jury duty has become something of a sport.

- Making representative democracy work. How many people who consider themselves patriotic can name their Congress member, let alone their state representative? How many have bothered to tell their elected representatives how they feel about an important issue?

- Participation in government. At the local level, government decisions are made by those who go to the meetings, especially here in New England. But few people attend Town Meeting, where voters in small communities make key decisions. Most local officials are elected without opposition because there aren't enough candidates. It's a constant struggle to get volunteers for committees that chart the course for the community.

- Respect for the democratic process. Most people elected to state and federal offices could make more money for less work in the private sector. They shouldn't have to wear a flag to prove their patriotism. Yet they are often ridiculed for doing their duty. Good citizens disagree vocally and often with elected public servants, but they do so with respect.

- Respect for the military. You don't have to serve in the armed forces to be patriotic, though anyone who has made that sacrifice has earned the presumption of patriotism. But everyone who has put on the uniform deserves the respect and gratitude of all citizens.

- Paying your taxes. There's nothing unamerican about grumbling about how high your taxes are or how the government is spending them. But there's nothing patriotic about cheating on your taxes either. Good citizens obey the law and pay their fair share of the cost of government.

So fly your flag this weekend -- and every weekend, if you like. But patriotism isn't something you hang on a pole and forget about. It's what you do as a citizen. It's the respect you show the government as well as its symbols. Long may good patriotic citizenship wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at