What Patriotism Means To Me

My family enjoyed the 4th of July with a patriotic celebration of flags, sparklers, and fireworks. But for me, the seeds of patriotism sprouted in a far corner of South Carolina on my father’s family farm. As a preschooler, I chased chickens that clucked and ran and flapped. I slurped cheeks full of fresh watermelon picked from the field. America. The only thing missing was apple pie.

My ancestors worked that farm as slaves when it was part of a larger plantation. The land was ceded to my great-great-great-grandfather - a gift from his former master. Today my cousins grow soybeans, but for generations escaping the farm was a wartime ritual for the men.

My great-grandfather left the farm to serve in WWI. A generation later his son volunteered to serve in a segregated U.S. Army unit during WWII. Both risked their lives fighting in the name of patriotism. Both returned stateside to the welcoming embrace of Jim Crow. And both labored on that farm until their deaths.

Continuing the family legacy during Vietnam, my father left to join the U.S. Air Force. Instead of completing his service and returning to work on the farm like his ancestors, he re-enlisted and never looked back. A career non-commissioned officer, for 23 years he traveled the world with a wife, two kids, and a series of dogs.

I remember attending his retirement ceremony when I was a fourthclassman (freshman) at the U.S. Air Force Academy. I stood proudly in uniform as his commander read the retirement orders. In our expansive family of veterans, serving in every branch of the Armed Forces, I was en route to becoming the first commissioned officer.

If hard work and military service are the benchmarks for patriotism, my family could be on the recruitment poster. Our values include service, sacrifice, and tolerance. We believe in the America that claims to be a nation of hope and opportunity for your tired, poor, and huddled masses. That is why as a lifelong patriot, it is impossible for me to remain silent while men and women abuse their power to hijack the meaning of patriotism.

How can any American be proud that a man who bows at the altar of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia represents our patriotic values? Do his supporters have the courage to face a friend, coworker, or acquaintance from any marginalized group and tell them that their dreams, aspirations, and lives do not matter?

Instead, many advocate from the shadows - their silence becomes complicity. It is cowardice to ignore this hateful ideology and be unwilling to defend it to those destined to suffer. While the President and his merry band of sycophants bastardize the meaning of patriotism, the silent align themselves with values that are un-American. Let us make this about humanity, not politics.

Patriotism is not blind loyalty to a demagogue who feasts on prejudice and cruelty. It is about pushing an imperfect America to reckon with its grisly history and achieve its potential as the moral beacon of the world.

The seeds of patriotism planted in my family generations ago have grown roots that are part of the fabric of this nation. These are roots that will withstand the screaming chainsaw of bigotry and cruelty. And for America to live up to her professed ideals of opportunity and equality, we all must stand up to the resurgent intolerance blanketing our nation. Challenge it at work. Challenge it at home. Challenge it at play. Challenge it every single time. And challenge it at the ballot box - speaking for those whose voices are ignored. Do this, and together we can indeed make America great.

Brian H. Williams, MD