Unlikely Patriots: Our Exceptionally American Week

unlikely patriots

(Photo: Igor Stevanovic/Shutterstock)

How much do you love your country? How much does your country love you?

Your answer to the second question might not match your answer to the first, which is one way of stating the great American paradox: We laud individual character as the source of national virtue, yet we balk when someone steps out of line. We are a nation built by immigrants and upstarts, yet we demonize (or ignore altogether) those on the fringes of society: rebels; intellectual and political outliers; minority ethnicities and faiths; not to mention the country’s shameful abundance of the homeless and indigent, comprising veteran and civilian alike.

Our Week of Unlikely Patriots examines some of these “outliers,” including ostensible traitors (the Catonsville Nine; the fictional Philip Nolan); stubborn pacifists; our nation’s sometimes-vilified community of public defenders; and the Communist sympathizer who taught Maoist tactics to the Marines’ Raider Battalions. Elsewhere, we consider the role amphetamines have played in shaping modern America, peek into the archives of the World War II Civilian Public Service, and debate which war was our “most American” war.

There are ironies and contradictions that complicate and unite these pieces: Patriotism, after all, often means telling your country how it’s failing. "I know my own nation best,” Edward Abbey once said. “That's why I despise it the most. And I know and love my own people, too, the swine. I'm a patriot. A dangerous man." And if, as Samuel Johnson says, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, America must likewise confront the lingering strains of white-purist nationalism that inspired—or at least implicitly sanctioned—the assassination of nine black congregants at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on the evening of June 17. Emanuel's 200-year history is forged in the American paradox: No matter how many times it was raided or burned or disclaimed by its country, the church nonetheless sought to improve that country, to love and nurture a nation that was not ready to reciprocate. If patriotism can be found anywhere, it is here.

So please, enjoy and interrogate these unlikely essays. I’d say, “let us know what we got wrong,” but then I don’t really have to. It's your patriotic duty to complain. —Ted Scheinman

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Important Anniversaries in America's Affair With Salt-Based Stimulants

An incomplete history of our country's incongruous amphetamine laws.

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'Sick at Heart': The Lonely Radicalism of the Catonsville Nine

Catholic radicals burned hundreds of draft cards with homemade napalm in 1968. Here’s what modern activists can learn from them.

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Colonel Evans Fordyce Carlson: Our Most Patriotic Communist?

A military memorandum re: the communist sympathizer who taught Maoist tactics to the Marines’ Raider battalions.

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How I Cheated My Way Into Arlington National Cemetery

An early education in the hollowness of patriotic performance.

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True Patriots Take Their Coffee to Go

The rich history, and intense American-ness, of the portable coffee cup.

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No Country for Jailed Men

Our incarceration rate makes America exceptional. The public defenders who push back are some of our greatest patriots.

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The American Diner at Age 143

The definitions and décor may change, but the diner remains our home, even when we've forgotten where home is.

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Which War Was the Most American War?

What a playfully arbitrary debate says about American historical memory.