One day when I was about eight years old, my mother tossed one of her frequent “out of the blue” questions at me:
“Ralph, do you love your country?”
“Yes, mother,” I said, wondering where she was going with this.
“Well, I hope when you grow up, you’ll work hard to make it more lovable.”
Thus, began my education in the patriotism of deeds, the patriotism of advancing justice. The country was in the middle of World War II and the spirit of patriotism was engulfed by the war effort, by the heroics of our armed forces against the fascists, and, for my parents, by my brother Shaf’s impending enlistment into the Navy.
Still, having come as teenage immigrants from Lebanon, during the Ottoman Empire and French mandate periods, my mother and father were very sensitive to any monopolization of patriotic symbols—flags, anthems, the July 4th holiday—to induce public obedience. They were wary of how many politicians would use and misuse these symbols to stifle dissent, hide abuses and manipulate public opinion. They rejected both political and commercial manipulation of patriotic feelings for narrow, often harmful self-serving ends.
Of course, the factory town of Winsted, CT where we grew up had its July 4th parade with marching bands, flags, proud veterans and assorted ceremonies. Its mile long Main Street was perfectly suited for these festivities. Plenty of fireworks in plenty of youthful hands too. We all had a general good time.
During one such Parade, it suddenly occurred to me that no one had ever marched holding up a large replica of the Declaration of Independence, which was the reason for the celebration that day. Other than being printed in its entirety by some newspapers, this bold Declaration whose eloquent assertion of human rights was heard around the world for many years, still is not front and center for historical recollection and contemporary contemplations.
My parents prized the freedoms they found in America, and they were alert to anyone who might try to diminish them. At his sprawling restaurant on Main Street opposite the textile factories, my father would always speak his mind. He was a constant critic of power — big business, government, local and national — and readily offered solutions.
His longtime customers and friends would sometimes say to him: “How do you expect to make a profit if you keep speaking out this way?” He would smile and say: “When I passed the Statue of Liberty, I took it seriously,” cautioning them with this advice: “If you don’t use your rights, you will lose your rights.”
At the same time, he would challenge attempts to monopolize and debase our country’s symbols of flag, pledge and anthem into an unthinking patriotism by politicians to cover their sins. As Dad often reminded anyone who would listen, our flag stands for the principles embodied in the last words of the Pledge of Allegiance — “with liberty and justice for all.”
There has always been military patriotism. There is more and more commercialization of the Fourth of July. In our hometown, we were raised to respect and nurture a civic patriotism.
As my brother Shaf said many years later: “A true love for the community of human beings that is our country is expressed when each one of us helps define that patriotism by our deeds and thoughts working together.” And, he set a wonderful example when in 1965 he founded the Northwestern Connecticut Community College in town.
Maybe we should start reserving time on the Fourth for assessing the ways forward toward expending those “inalienable rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Ralph Nader is the author of The Seventeen Traditions (Harper Collins, 2007), a remembrance of the ways his parents raised their four children.