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Eric Liu on what makes a true patriot

Eric Liu on the meaning of patriotism
Eric Liu on the meaning of patriotism 02:50

A national holiday seems the right time to take stock of the meaning of patriotism. Here's former White House speechwriter Eric Liu, author of the new book "Become America":

My parents were born in Nanjing, China in a time of war and revolution. They came to the United States via Taiwan to make a new life. I was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in a time of peace and prosperity. I ended up working at the White House and becoming an author, a teacher and civic preacher.

All my life - whether I was playing Thomas Jefferson during the Bicentennial or working for President Clinton eighteen years later - I've been aware that all I did was have the dumb luck to be born here. My parents who did the heavy lifting. They risked everything. They showed me the meaning of true patriotism.

Sasquatch Books

These days, we hear a lot of talk about love of country and who's a real American. But too much of this talk is patriotism on the cheap, saying "We're number one" without doing much to earn it.

For nearly 20 years, one percent of Americans have done the heavy lifting of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, true patriotism doesn't require that we all join the military. It does require us all to show up more, contribute more, participate more, be more useful to more people. To vote, volunteer, serve, listen, learn, empathize, circulate power rather than hoard it.

It's called living like a citizen.

And I'm not talking immigration status. Plenty of folks lack the papers, but live like good citizens – and plenty more have the papers, but don't.

A century-and-a-half ago, a German immigrant named Carl Schurz put it well. Schurz was one of the young reformers who tried to bring democracy to Germany in 1848, failed, then fled to America. He became an anti-slavery activist in Missouri, a Union general in the Civil War, then a U.S. Senator in an age of jingoism and nativism, when demagogues were shouting, "My country, right or wrong!"

Schurz said that true patriotism isn't "my country, right or wrong." It's "my country – if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right." In other words, not blind faith, but constant responsibility – to reform, to dissent, to make sure we're living up to our creed.

That's what I love about my country. I love getting to take responsibility for it – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Carl Schurz couldn't do that in Germany. My parents couldn't do that in China.

You and I? We get to do it every day.

Let's celebrate that good fortune, by earning it.

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Story produced by Dustin Stephens. 

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