What True Patriotism Means to Me

A New Breed of Superhero for the 21st Century

Editor's Note: In 2008, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer launched a $25,000 national high school essay contest asking, “What does true patriotism mean to you?” They received thousands of essays from students across the nation. Mild-mannered high school student Paige Edmiston was as surprised to win this national essay competition as Peter Parker was to discover he had developed superhuman powers from a spider bite. This is her essay.

We’ve seen them for nearly a century in comic books. We see them in summer Hollywood blockbusters. And we see them in every eight-year-old Superman, Spiderman, and Batman running around the neighborhood on Halloween. America loves a good superhero. The only problem with this superpower love affair is that the superhero is not real. When that eight-year-old is but a few years older, saving the world is reduced to a movie-preview tagline enjoyed with popcorn at the multiplex.

But I think that superheroes are real. There are superheroes all around us who embody the qualities that any member of the DC Comics’ Justice League needs. They desire to help others first, make right what has plainly gone wrong, protect those who cannot protect themselves, and even save the world. Our next superheroes? The true American patriots. And applications for the job are open to everyone.

America’s ready for a new breed of hero whose special power does not come in the form of superhuman strength or sonic speed but in the very human sentiments of duty, honor, compassion, and pride. When true patriots witness our own American citizens homeless or living in the slums of our cities, they do not turn their heads the other way—they accept responsibility for the common good. True patriots see homelessness as a problem deserving a superhero response—helping those who cannot help themselves and righting wrongs. Whatever problem is at the root of a family forced to live in a car or a teen reduced to sleeping in an alley—drugs, alcohol, physical or mental disability, even lack of motivation—true patriots do not assume that the homeless want or deserve this plight. True patriots recognize that getting an education may require tuition, that getting a job may require training, or bus fare, or child care, and that the man living in the dumpster might have a different roof over his head had he been born in Beverly Hills. True patriots recognize that the well-being of these Americans is the responsibility and duty of every citizen capable of lending a hand (even if that hand is simply ladling soup). True patriots realize that helping Americans out of poverty is not just worthwhile, but essential, and that help starts with no longer treating them as invisible, non-existent beings who are solely the responsibility of  government welfare programs. True patriots know that without relationships built on an individual and community level, monetary aid may do little but continue a vicious cycle of drug and alcohol addiction. True patriots see this need and make the necessary connections—giving their fellow American citizens dignity and the gift of feeling human again. True patriots see the impoverished deserve equal opportunity and make saving the world, even if only one person at a time, their cross to carry.

At the same time, like any good superhero, true patriots have no interest in lawlessness. True patriots keep citizens accountable for their actions and do not permit lawbreakers to use poverty, any more than greed, as an excuse for criminality. However, while true patriots value prisons for the villainous, they also work to improve the ability of these institutions to provide education and rehabilitation to help those imprisoned, teaching them how to function as contributing members of society. True patriots see the connection between our desire to reduce crime, our treatment of criminals, and our approach to poverty. True patriots go a giant leap farther than even Superman, working to stop the need for crime before it starts and to prevent criminals from reoffending.

Superheroes live to right what is wrong. I believe there is a reason our most iconic comic book characters literally live the first amendment. Is it a coincidence that Clark Kent and Peter Parker are journalists for the Daily Planet and Daily Bugle? No, both X-ray vision and “Spidey-sense” are simply entertaining metaphors for finding truth. Our fictional heroes are champions of free speech and an independent press. While our citizenry may be manipulated to turning a blind eye to injustice and corruption in our very own country, true patriots remember how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took on the Nixon Whitehouse, how Edward R. Murrow challenged Senator Joseph McCarthy, and how publisher John Peter Zenger’s libel trial for challenging a corrupt politician established that truth was an absolute defense. While these American superheroes did not wear masks or capes, their superpowers can be adopted by any true patriot. Each of us chooses to right a wrong even against the pressure of authority. This is especially important when the truth hangs in the balance. True patriots understand that power lies in their hands (or pens or keyboards). Journalists report the truth rather than accept the offerings of political or corporate spin-doctors. A truly independent press reduces the power of partisan screamers on the left and right. True patriots ask questions that make politicians squirm and reveal facts. True patriots bravely step forward not only to bring forth unbiased news, but also to speak out when this country’s course needs to be altered for the benefit of all of its citizens. True patriots wade proudly into our worst mistakes, telling the stories of U.S. citizens deported based on their physical appearance or revealing the atrocities of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. While true patriots are proud to celebrate what is great about America, they will never yield to blind sentiment or shirk from reporting truth about a war because their patriotism is questioned.

When the country is polarized by petty arguments and resentments between political parties, true patriots look at the big picture. Unlike comic books, where everything is black and white, true patriots see that privacy issues like abortion and gay marriage may never be agreed upon, and when argued endlessly between the left and the right, do nothing to further our country’s best interests. True patriots know that the bitter resentments of social issues often mask the bigger issues that remain in the shadows and require bipartisan effort and honest and straightforward politicians. True patriots also know that it is their responsibility to hold their politicians accountable—to keep the government a valid representation of the people.

True patriots have faith in the principles set forth by our Founding Fathers. They are not afraid to look outside our own borders to gain new knowledge and wisdom. They realize that it is because we are a melting pot that we are so strong. They do not fear competition overseas, but rather are emboldened by that competition to go on to do great things. The true patriot does not fear change and believes that we can make that change good.

The superheroes of our history have been the reformers, the revolutionists, the adapters; the people of change, evolution, and progress. These champions in star-spangled capes include Dr. Martin Luther King and Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and George Washington. These are people who greatly loved their country and found that the best way to show this love was to fix and transform and inspire it into something better than it was.

Patriotism, in its most real and truthful sense, is love of one’s country. But it is not unconditional; instead it is a wonderfully conditional love that requires something more than obsessive allegiance to a symbol. It is love tempered by wisdom and powered by goodness and obligation. It is the love expressed in the dying words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

I want to be this kind of true patriot. Without mask or cape, much slower than a speeding bullet, and with no super strength, I want to be one in a new generation of heroes whose devotion to civil service and the common good always win out over the forces of greed, corruption, and division. I want to see the day when eight-year-old boys and girls running around in Batman pajamas turn into eighteen-year-olds taking on the heroic duties of helping others first, making right what is plainly wrong, and protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Maybe with enough of these true American patriots, we will even save the world.

Paige Edmiston