“Our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance. It is also owed to justice and to humanity. Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.” — James Bryce, historian and British ambassador to the United States (1907-13).
Today we celebrate our independence from England. (The irony of opening with a quote from a British diplomat is not lost on us.) Two hundred and forty-five years ago, the Founding Fathers declared that the American colonies would be free of British tyranny and become a cradle of modern democracy — a place where the people would rule themselves, where debate and cooperation would vanquish oppression, where every man had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In that 245 years, we have sometimes risen to the lofty ideals of our nation; sometimes we have fallen short. For many other countries, America has been the beacon of hope, of what good governance could and should be. But we have had our own genocides and concentration camps. We decry autocratic and unstable governments around the world, even as our own government in recent decades has been unilaterally wielded by one party or the other, with power switching hands every few years.
We set the standards for human rights abroad, positioning ourselves as the physical and economic global enforcer. But within our own borders, we have failed to grant basic human rights to our brethren, based on the color of their skin or their ancestry or their religion or their gender or their sexual orientation.
We are a nation of contradictions, founded on noble intentions and cobbled together from victories and mistakes.
When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we remember that specific moment of our founding and all the grand ideals that created the framework for the United States of America. We celebrate the fight for freedom, then and now, here and abroad. We celebrate the progress we have made toward becoming a better country and toward creating a better world. We celebrate the good of us.
But in celebrating the good, we cannot ignore the bad. We cannot erase the pain the country has inflicted on entire swaths of peoples. We cannot hide from the failures to meet our own standards of conduct.
As West Virginians, we are perhaps uniquely situated to understand how to love and take pride in the place you call home, even as you loathe its flaws and strive to make it better.
To paraphrase James Bryce, patriotism is not blind allegiance to a flag or to the country it represents.
So as we have our cookouts and wave our red, white and blue flags and watch fireworks light up the night sky, know that we are allowed to feel all those things — love, hate, pride, shame — contradictory as they are. We are allowed to celebrate the good of America, even as we recognize its flaws and work toward fulfilling the promise of forming a more perfect union.