The moralist in us agrees with Douglass and sees great hypocrisy, but the historian sees something more complicated--a halting, and by no means irreversible, advance toward democracy.
My point here is that when we hail ourselves as the "Land of the Free" it is not rooted in ether. It's an actual thing. We worry about that kind of symbolism being employed by racist, militarists and demagogues. One way to ensure that outcome is to flee the field, to cede patriotism to people who talk of the "real Virginia."
But that just strikes me as escapism. Aren't all nations problems? Aren't all families? Aren't all people?For me, anti-patriotism (refusing to salute the flag, making exasperated comments about how things are done in America, dissing our foreign policy out of hand, becoming outraged at any show of patriotic feeling) has to do with age and education. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I was pretty down on the whole notion of America.* Law school changed that. Call it indoctrination, call it education in a more nuanced way of thinking, call it getting older, call it what you will: I came out of my three years at U.C. Hastings with a real love of democracy, specifically its American incarnation, and a new understanding and appreciation of what it means to feel patriotic.
Sure, there are problems--huge problems--with the ways in which we implement our democracy. And I still support the right to deface the flag (in fact, I think it can make for some very effective protests). But I think it is important to remember that there are some very good, noble, and important ideas underlying our system of government and upon which many of our structures are founded. These are things to celebrate, in moderate, humble ways, certainly. But anti-patriotism, which refuses to recognize the good that there is, is no more intelligent, no more worldly, and no more helpful than militant patriotism/nationalism.
I think "escapism" gets toward the problem: Neither extreme allows for nuance, for dialogue, for improvement. Both refuse to look at the meat of the problem: how to work toward a more democratic society. Refusing to look at either the good or the bad is no way to improve. We have to carefully assess what we do well and what we do poorly in order to get better: to get rid of what is not working, to keep and build upon what is. Without the willingness to engage, without the willingness to practice democracy, the rhetoric of both sides serves no purpose other than to mire us in, at best, mediocrity.**
*Aren't prepositions interesting and fun? "Down on" and "down with" have such different meanings. No wonder they are one of the hardest things for people learning English to master. (Well, that and the fact that there is little rhyme or reason to their use unless you dig deep, a la The Grammar Book's really cool taxonomy of prepositions.)
**Did you feel the swell of rhetoric at the end there? I feel like saluting.