We should talk about citizenship. Americans seem more interested in patriotism. The two are not synonymous. In fact, they are almost mutually exclusive. Either/Or instead of Both/And. There is overlap, but it widens and narrows from person to person, patriot to patriot, citizen to citizen. With some Americans, it seems, patriotism is everything and citizenship only for geeks, if they think about it at all.

Consider those who stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. I suspect every one of the invaders thought of themselves as patriots. Not one, I’ll bet, thought about what it means to be a good citizen. That day they were neither.

Citizenship and patriotism have been on a lot of minds lately, judging by the number of blue and yellow flags flying from cars and displayed in shop windows. Today I saw an entire bush festooned with blue and yellow ribbons.

The Ukrainians have been conducting a clinic on citizenship … and patriotism. This is what it looks like when they’re one and the same. They are putting their lives on the line, not to fight wars in far-off lands and claiming self-defense, but defending their actual country, which is actually being invaded. 

The whole world is watching. We are mesmerized and inspired. And maybe we’re learning some lessons about what it takes to be a good citizen and an authentic patriot.

Does anyone think about citizenship anymore? Do we even have a working definition? Does it begin and end with voting? Jury duty? Paying taxes? Following laws, more or less? Staying informed, more or less? In the Age of Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories, does your definition include the capacity to differentiate between truth, falsehood, and deliberate lies? I’m guessing every American, if asked whether they can tell the difference between truth and untruth would immediately answer, “Yes.”

But that’s not always true.

Does your definition of citizenship include fighting the battle between truth and misinformation, our crisis of credibility? At the moment, it is our most important struggle. One we seem to be losing. Big time. 

Patriotism is an emotion. Love of country. National pride. Displaying that pride by singing the National Anthem at baseball games, cheering “U.S.A., U.S.A.” during the Olympics, flying the flag on holidays or year-round. Patriotism can be authentic and inspiring or it can be showy and shallow.

Citizenship, on the other hand, is active. Patriotism doesn’t get anything done. But it provides the fuel, the drive, the motivation for citizens to get involved and make our country better, stronger. 

Do good citizens violently assault or legislatively undermine democratic institutions? Or do they work to strengthen democracy? Do they attend rallies for self-serving demagogues? Or do they volunteer at local food pantries and homeless shelters? Do they vote for candidates who say only they can make Americans great or do they vote for those actually doing something to make America better? Do they resort to violence when provoked? Or do they rely on reason?

Do they promote individual rights and defend freedom? Or do they promote the common good and defend those who are marginalized?

Or both?

Patriotism doesn’t ask anything of us. Good citizenship asks us to accept personal sacrifices for the sake of the common good. Good citizens answer the question, “What is best for the whole?” by doing something to make it happen.

Patriotism in this country is often loud and frequently divisive. Citizenship is usually quiet and unassuming. It doesn’t seek the spotlight unless it involves nonviolent resistance to injustice. 

Not everyone is a good citizen. I would grade myself a B-. I could do a lot more. What grade would you give yourself? Do you have role models? Was Rush Limbaugh a good citizen? How about John Lewis? Donald Trump? Joe Biden? Two of these were/are phony, blowhard patriots motivated by money and self-interest. The other two were/are hard-working, authentic citizens, motivated by quiet patriotism. I’ll leave it to you to decide which was which.

This country needs less patriotism and more citizenship. The media needs to pay less attention to the attention-seekers, and more attention to unsung heroes. 

As with everything else these days, patriotism and citizenship have become polarized. Patriotism has been hijacked by those with a political agenda and we undervalue pragmatic citizenship. We need to put them on the same footing and reunite them. 

We have a lot to learn from the Ukrainians. 

Think about the difference between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky. Which leader would you vote for? We had a comparable choice in this country in 2020. The same choice may present itself in 2024. Who did you vote for then? Who will you vote for next time? Your answer says a lot about your notion of citizenship.

Patriotism is not always good citizenship. 

Good citizenship is always patriotic.

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