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Taking Back Words 

by Ann M. Colford

In the land of the sound bite, labels -- both positive and negative -- have become the workhorses of political discourse. Orators in the 19th century could take hours to work up to a key point, but now things are different. Our 24/7 news blitz needs constant feeding, so we're stuck with the irony of hours of coverage but very little communication. The breathless pace of live shots and news ticker headlines demand more and more compression of thought until the headlines are all we get. Back in the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, we got depth, analysis and nuance, the news equivalent of a densely nutritious meal. Now we get nothing but high-sugar, high-fat snack foods -- satisfying in the moment, but with no lasting value.

For headlines and sound bites to mean anything at all today, they must be filled with buzzwords that embody an entire concept. Liberal. Conservative. Christian. Patriot. These words have been saddled with the weight of cultural inference, a burden they were never meant to carry.

In addition, given the great political divide that cleaves our country at the moment, some of these emotion-laden meanings are imposed by one side as a weapon against the other. The words are then used to bludgeon political opponents while their meaning gets skewed beyond recognition. As a person who loves words and the finely differentiated shadings in our rich language, I find this skewing indescribably offensive. I think it's time to reclaim our legacy of words, to unpack some of these multi-layered meanings and see if the labels really say what we think they say.

Of all the labels being tossed around this year, I think "patriotism" is most deserving of closer examination. No one wants to be labeled unpatriotic, because being unpatriotic is considered akin to treason -- another word that's been thrown around far too lightly by certain commentators. But surely patriotism involves more than wrapping oneself in the flag and hollering, "U-S-A!" What does patriotism really mean?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines patriotism as "love for or devotion to one's country." Love and devotion are broad concepts -- broad enough to include a wide range of expressions. But now, too often I see patriotism confused with nationalism or its twisted cousin, jingoism. "Love it or leave it." "My country, right or wrong." "You're with us or you're against us." This kind of black-and-white morality and binary thinking doesn't work well in a complex world. Patriotism, that grand word, has been reduced to a series of litmus tests.

I think the word -- and the idea -- deserve better. British author G. K. Chesterton once compared "My country, right or wrong," to "My mother, drunk or sober," arguing that no true patriot would ever use such a phrase. Most people, including me, aren't aware that the full quotation from Carl Schurz included a second, clarifying line: "Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right."

Here, I think, lies the true definition of patriotism. For me, being a patriot means standing up for the principles on which this nation was founded. That may mean taking up arms to defend against external enemies. It may mean speaking out when the threat comes from within, when our institutions do not live up to our stated ideals. Military service can be patriotic, but so can dissent. Both require courage and action, two key elements of patriotism. We may not all agree whether the country is right or wrong, but the freedom to respectfully disagree is one of our core values and it must be defended within the definition of patriotism itself.

In Roget's Thesaurus, "patriotism" is grouped with words meaning public spirit, social consciousness and civic responsibility. Patriotism is not partisan. No political party, no ideology can lay exclusive claim to love of country. The word and the idea must be kept free for all of us to embrace.

Publication date: 08/19/04
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