As we rushed along the highway to pick up the cake for my grandmother's 80th birthday party, my mother began reciting a poem she learned as a child. Maybe it's one of those generational things. I grew up with phonics and set theory. Mom learned to memorize Langston Hughes, Shakespeare and patriotic poems like the one she pulled out of her hat this time, "The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie."
Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
The poem is set in our home state, as Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson rode past "the clustered spires of Frederick" and a 90-year-old woman named Barbara Fritchie stonewalled him, preventing him from shooting down the Union flag. Even though she'd recited this poem for me many times before, Mom always chants the good parts with plenty of drama.
"Shoot if you must this old grey head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came.
"Who touches a hair on yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.
The fact that my mother can recite this poem with such gusto amazes me (since I can't even remember where I put my purse) on a few levels. This poem in particular -- this poem about our region of the country, the Civil War and standing up for what you believe in -- seems hopelessly romantic and outdated in all of the right and wrong ways.
For all of my willingness to criticize this country, I still believe in it. But this type of ardent patriotism rings false to most people in my generation. The question is why.
Is it just a question of attitude? Have we watched too much MTV and too many hip car commercials to admit we love America? I don't think so. The questions are far deeper and more substantial.
We can't be uncritical of our nation, mired as it is in a campaign finance morass of both parties' making, often churlish about its international obligations (remember that billion we owe the U.N.?), even ungenerous toward its own children, a third of whom experience poverty and hunger each year. There's a fine line between critical and ungrateful, and youth tread it often.
Perhaps we simply need to re-invest in patriotism on our own terms. Maybe we should think of civic engagement -- participation not only in voting, but other social institutions -- as the active expression of patriotism.
I was lucky enough to get to hear Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam talk about the theories in his book "Bowling Alone," which include the idea that this generation may need to create new civic institutions that we find meaningful. Putnam charts the decline of "social capital," a decline of interaction among Americans, whether in neighborhood organizations or simply families eating together. But the thousands of young Americans who are swelling the ranks of the national service movement may help to reverse this decline, not only filling the needs of America's communities, but reinvigorating belief in a larger sense of national community.
Of course, we aren't an isolated nation, and most younger Americans view global culture as a desirable and growing part of their lives. It's telling that this generation has embraced Ralph Nader and dismissed Pat Buchanan's increasingly irrelevant mumblings about putting troops on the border to stop illegal immigration and maintaining an "America first" foreign policy.
Immigration never comes without complications -- it didn't when the Italians came, or the Irish, or the Jews. This generation doesn't expect things to be easy, but most people I talk to want real help with real issues, whether it' s figuring out how to diminish the downside of economic competition between blacks and Mexicans in South Central L.A. or further the anti-sweatshop movement on college campuses. And by the way, while we ponder these deep thoughts, we can do it over takeout burritos or Belgian frites or thaw some of those frozen edamame from the supermarket.
Encouraging civic engagement must be one part of the new patriotism; a realistic sense of our diversity certainly has to be another. However we find ways to be proud of our country in the 21st century, they must be new ways, to fit a changing America. This country is worthy of poetry, perhaps words yet to be written.
Farai Chideya is the editor of Pop & Politics (www.popandpolitics.com), a journal of opinion for the next generation.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.