Do you still get a spine-tingling touch of patriotic pride when Old Glory is being hoisted to the strains of our National Anthem? When an American wins a gold medal at the Olympics? When you see a soldier salute a superior officer?
“Yes, yes, yes” has flat-lined to “no” or “not so much” for far too many Americans. Has patriotism plummeted, our red, white, and blue lost its luster?
Well before the Brussels bombings, a Belgian friend told me that his country lacked national identity and national pride. A many-member European Union which blurred boundaries at the same time immigrants were pouring in has its own problems. Let’s stay focused on America—the idea, the ideal, our identity.
The concept of “America” is carried in both head and heart. My senior generation was given a goldmine of positive patriotic images which informed our feelings of national pride. Washington crossing the Delaware, Lincoln at Gettysburg, soldiers wading ashore at Omaha Beach or hoisting a flag at Iwo Jima.
But as you peel back generations from mine to Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials, there’s progressively less “good America” knowledge to inform patriotic feelings—let alone fervor. Despite the Internet being a force multiplier for available information, young heads hardly know the nobler aspects of our history. Secondly, the institutions we’ve traditionally honored are, well, less honorable today. Scandals and corruption in church, state, sports, politics, and other pursuits have sullied institutional images and reputations.
By default, hero worship, respect, and admiration have been redirected to tattoos and tarnished celebrities. We’ve gone from heroes to hypocrisy, from rugged individualism to ragged indolence, from Billy Graham and “Win one for the Gipper” to ghettos and make a buck for Bernie Madoff. President Kennedy’s stirring “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” has been reversed by a bloated bureaucracy and giveaway government that issues checks and not challenges.
America needs a patriotic rebirth, a Great Awakening of our better angels and nobler instincts. Based on a God-fearing and moral citizenry, American Exceptionalism was endowed by our Creator with life, liberty, and a pursuit of happiness that helps the needy rather than the greedy while rewarding work and creativity.
But image-making can be evil. The Oregon shooter was inspired by terrorist posters of
gun-toting masked men. And the Islamic State’s slick recruitment package includes brutal massacres and decapitations that almost inexplicably (to us) arouse sick minds and suicide bombers.
If America needs a new image to inspire our young people in a nobler direction to offset ISIS and others, what would you put on that blank canvas? What would your poster of America Today or America Tomorrow look like? Our Norman Rockwell imaging of old needs to be modernized and updated—before a global economy, personal greed, a drugged distraction, and grotesque terrorists begin filling that blank canvas and defiling our national identity. America, we can do better—and should!
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.