Pandemic Patriotism

Something courses through my veins to the beat of the fireworks that erupt above. Stone Mountain looms before me, the world’s largest granite monolith abask in red, white and blue floodlights while the Star-Spangled Banner roars from the speakers at its base. As the national anthem concludes on a climax, my heart pounds fervently with an inexplicable electricity, and two words charge each pulse: Independence Day. The stirring within me seeps into the air, occupying the silence as the music fades, and I wonder if the dozens of people that have crowded into the field to enjoy the July Fourth festivities can feel it too. 

Years in retrospect, it would have been more appropriate to ask, especially in the context of the world’s current coronavirus-induced tumult, if we would ever feel that way again. At the time, the elusive emotion failed to identify itself to me. Today, although I know its name, patriotism has proven to be all the more enigmatic. In the dictionary, it is denoted as an innocuous “love or devotion to one’s country,” and, in an array of thesauruses, considered synonymous with terms of graduated severity: flag-waving, chauvinism, xenophobia

Accordingly, Paul Frymer, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, discussed in an interview with the HPR that patriotism “means so many different things to so many different people. … Everyone is going to experience it differently.” While a verdict has yet to be reached regarding its conclusive significance, one can determine that, at the very least, patriotism is an evolving concept that has ebbed and flowed in parallel with the American experience and whose continuous redefinition has been further catalyzed by the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic.

Past

If the American story was a graveyard, patriotism would be the man that carves the headstones, the scribe of every name and narrative engraved into centuries of history. But here in the United States, it would be uncharacteristic to have just one “mason”; instead, patriotism finds itself governed by three pillars: actionable independence, divisive solidarity and skeptical public spirit. 

Perhaps most exemplary of America’s first “mason” is the nation’s birth. “These are the times that try men’s souls … but he that stands by [his country] now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman,” reads Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet “American Crisis”. To him, and to many during the Revolutionary War, patriotism was the defiant refusal to “shrink from the service of [one’s] country.” At the time, the fight for independence reinforced an inveterate belief that activism was the prime expression of zeal. An American patriot did not stand idly by or cower. Instead, in the face of toxic mercantilism and royal subjugation, he vigorously struggled for self-determination. For Paine and for the ostensible remainder of the American public, patriotism was the decision to conquer cowardice and act on one’s intrinsic independence. 

By the 1860s, however, America had become the subject of cruel irony: a “union” embroiled in civil war. Consequently, where the patriotism of the Revolution had identified itself as a binary choice between bravery and indolence, citizens trapped in auto-belligerence gravitated toward an oxymoronic expression of national pride. From the void of civil unrest rose the first recitation of a “pledge” used as tests of loyalty to either the North or South, as opposed to revolutionary-era patriotic tests of valor. Even upon the war’s closure, deep sectional divides remained that would contribute to the advent of a dichotomous national pride in the future, best characterizing the patriotism of the mid-19th century as the second mason, divisive solidarity. 

Then, in 1918, according to USA Today, “relentless patriotism was used to sell bonds to the public”, as financiers appealed to the average citizen’s inner zealot with parades to support the World War I effort. But, as the highly contagious and lethal Spanish influenza simultaneously ravaged the world, feeding off of the close proximity and contact fostered by such public processions, into cities that partook in the festivities marched the third mason, compelling citizens to choose skepticism of ranking officials and public spirit over public safety as their outlet for patriotic expression; a striking parallel to America’s current predicament with regard to heeding the warnings of public health officials. Further, the Americans of 1918 found isolation contrary to their nature, a notion that may have implications for both continuity and change in modern citizen behavior.

The contemporary era’s resemblance to the past does not stop there. Historically, patriotism has transcended national pride to become an ideological mirror of American tribulations, built upon the bastions of action, solidarity and spirit, and varying between times and demographics. The malleability of these foundations has, however, allowed them to persist even as the context of American patriotism shifts in the face of new threats, namely the novel coronavirus. 

Present

For the story of the nation’s COVID-19 response, the Pew Research Center states that “Americans are turning to media, government, and others” in society. In turn, these triumvirate conduits of American perceptions have claimed pandemic niches for themselves and re-crafted the previously identified patriotic pillars — action, solidarity and spirit — in their coronavirus-tinted image. 

Times of crisis have, in the past, led to unfettered expansions of federal power, often at the expense of personal liberties, thus galvanizing the centuries-old actionable independence and skepticism of government within American patriotism. Regarding COVID-19, patriotic action has manifested itself in citizens’ responses to restrictive pandemic policies, a phenomenon epitomized by Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s frequent public appearances clad in a black mask, and President Donald Trump’s, until recently, lack of a protective garment. This stark contrast between the party leaders juxtaposes two facets of patriotic action: the choice between compliance in favor of collectivist benefit and defiance in favor of personal idiosyncratic expression. Situationally, it may be difficult to identify with collectivism, when the pandemic itself requires isolation.

By the same token, it is safe to conclude that the governmental patriotic canon often emphasizes choices that conjunctively divide and unify, alluding to its foundational divisive solidarity. Dating back to the pandemic’s genesis, the US government’s response to COVID-19 has prompted both criticism and praise from the public, largely along partisan lines. Indeed, after highlighting the infamous polarization that exists between Republicans and Democrats, Frymer commented, “We have, in the last 10 years or so, also seen the public start to polarize more,” a trend that is supported by a FiveThirtyEight consolidation of recent polls indicating a 70.8% discrepancy in pandemic response approval between the two parties. Interestingly, however, both perceptions of US COVID-19 mitigation are supported by historical patriotism, as the governmental skeptic, personified by adamant critics of the Trump administration, and the proponent of individual liberties, exemplified by lockdown protestors taking to Michigan streets in April, are both sometime protagonists of the American narrative. It seems, then, that the patriotism of COVID-19, at least with regard to government perceptions, exists in, reinforces and encourages the oft- partisan duality of patriotism in centuries past. 

Just as innately tied to the American experience is the press. But, while Americans once held the institution in confidence, 63% of the public now perceives the media as the perpetrators of “made-up information,” according to the Pew Research Center. Concerns about misinformation were shared by infectious disease specialist and professor at Emory University, Dr. Igho Ofotokun in an interview with the HPR. “We don’t know a whole lot about the virus, a lot of things we’re just learning as we go … so there’s a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty … and there’re a lot of half-truths,” although he believes the confusion is due to a “general lack of knowledge.” As the credibility of both the press and government continues to dwindle, then, it is plausible that the role of skeptical patriotism will both expand and become more self-assured, a cognitive reflection of the physical isolation many Americans have experienced since the pandemic began. After all, those who cannot put their trust in officials or media often put it in themselves, as, according to Gallup, a majority of US adults still consider themselves “well-informed”, despite a universal awareness of inaccurate reporting. 

Patriotism, however egocentric, is also a social affair, as national identity has always been an interactive, quorum-based phenomenon that fosters public spirit even in, as in 1918, the face of grave public danger. Moreover, during a pandemic in which interpersonal contact is the primary instigator of viral spread, Americans have been forced to reevaluate the way in which they collaborate with their countrymen, particularly with regard to July Fourth celebrations. Los Angeles’s Grand Park, for example, elected to host its annual block party virtually, and Bangor, Maine rescheduled festivities for September 5, dubbing the celebration “COVID Independence Day.” Meanwhile, other towns, like Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, chose to cancel gatherings altogether. These developments may have come as a disappointment to those who rely on such celebrations for their annual patriotic refuel or genuinely look forward to nationwide expressions of zeal, but it is clear that, as the pinnacle day of American pride has been reimagined to include social distancing and isolation, patriotism may take on a more remote tone, one that is less focused on national solidarity and reinforces individualism.

Posterity

When the dust of global reckoning settles, at the very least we can be certain that the United States, having experienced a pandemic overhaul, will look different than it did at the dawn of the decade. Several aspects of the quintessential American experience may emerge looking notably “un-American”: the 9-5 job, consumer culture and even foreign policy, which, as reported by Ed Yong in an interview with NPR, may be forced to replace counterterrorism with public health as its most pertinent global initiative. Most salient of these shifts, however, is not the behavior of America but its changing international position. 

For decades, the United States has been regarded as the “leader of the free world,” and its superiority is often underscored in patriotic discussions as the fulcrum on which each mason of patriotism is hinged: Displays of American indomitability have bolstered the military’s actionable independence; foreign threats have united citizens towards deeper national, albeit schismatic, solidarity; and reported triumphs in the face of global crises have bolstered public spirit. In recent months, though, American exceptionalism has been dented by none other than the court of global opinion. Whatever apprehension American citizens may have regarding the coronavirus, the rest of the world has amplified, as nations accustomed to immediate extensions of aid from the ever-prepared and ever-prosperous United States have been forced to grapple with a stark contrarian image: an America barely capable of sustaining itself, let alone anyone else. 

However, the recent lack of leadership from the US also serves as a testament to shifts in the priorities of American politicians and their constituents, as the physical distance mandated by the public health crisis has been extrapolated to encourage American isolationism. Where once independence and inaction were binary concepts, the notion of America First conflates the two in a nationalistic move that those abroad find concerning. Christy Helms, associate director of Grace Family of Churches, a ministry known locally for its international and multi-ethnic outreach, has experienced that concern firsthand, telling the HPR that in her correspondence with individuals in Morocco, Italy and Columbia, other nations have one overwhelming question: “Why don’t your people care about your people? You say you care so much about your country, but really you just care about yourself.” Such negative perceptions of America, unalleviated by its COVID response, are verified by the Pew Research Center’s display of already low worldwide confidence in the Trump administration. Indeed, a group of writers for the Guardian headlined global reactions most assertively: “World looks on in horror…”

As American dominance experiences breakdown, then, only one conclusion can be drawn from the decadence of patriotism’s pivot point: The novel coronavirus has left American identity incredibly vulnerable to change. The US could be on the verge of a radical transition, as the exposure of preexisting societal ills and racial inequities in an environment already charged with conflict spurs widespread calls for justice and as Americans find it increasingly difficult to take pride in an ostensibly intrinsically flawed nation. A younger generation of citizens, only 18 percent of whom currently, according to the Harvard Public Opinion Project, regard themselves as “very patriotic,” may have to prepare for adulthood as residents of a nation with lower global standing and fewer tangible examples of American invincibility. Tomorrow, citizens might wake only to find that “Americanness” has become unrecognizable or, conversely, an even more saturated version of itself. 

The structural integrity of American patriotism, though, may yet be salvaged. “In situations when the American dream has been threatened,” said Ofotokun, “Americans … have risen to those occasions.” With that proviso, there is hope that, having been shaped by COVID-19, patriotic action, solidarity and spirit, will not crumble, but rather, in the words of Helms, exemplify the “global” patriotic notion of “pride for [one’s] history and hope for [one’s] future.”

Image Credit: Photo by Martin Sanchez is used under the Unsplash license

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