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The New Patriotism

Presidents since Lincoln have urged us to follow our "better angels." Now Barack Obama's call for national service is inspiring a new era of people helping people.

American Flag

— Photo: Getty Images

If the Stars and Stripes are the truest symbol of national pride, then patriotism seems to be flying high. You can feel it as much as see it. At coffee bars in Seattle, in midwestern farm communities, on college campuses, in New York City subways, Americans from all walks of life—old, young, white, black, Republican and Democratic—are fervently, happily, waving the flag, both literally and figuratively, and bursting with a renewed spirit that is helping redefine what it means to be a patriot. It's a zeal that celebrates more than just symbols: these days Americans are rallying to make citizenship a participatory sport.

It is a welcome shift in mood. After years during which the flag—indeed patriotism itself—has been used as a polarizing line in the political sand, the country seems to have entered an era of energetic involvement in our collective fate. Fueled in part by President Barack Obama's resonant and reiterated call to service, the melting pot of our citizenry is rethinking the matter of our social contract—seeing in it a vehicle for cooperation, a link that allows us to combine our human capital and reinforce the strengths we have in common.

Volunteerism at food banks has risen. Donations to blood banks are up. And interest in national service jobs has skyrocketed: between November 2008 and May 2009, applications to the AmeriCorps program soared 226 percent over the same period a year before.

No doubt the urgency of these recessionary times has played a role. But it's probably too easy to cast the sudden attraction to the public sphere as merely one big desperate job hunt in a tough economy. "People are looking for something of meaning beyond themselves," notes Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures and author of "Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life" (Public Affairs, 2007). Especially among those 50 and older, "there's a practical idealism at work—a desire to leave the world better off than we found it, but a recognition that we're not going to live forever, so we'd better make an impact now."

This yearning to make a difference is perhaps why Thomas Weller, a 61-year-old mechanic near San Diego, patrols the local highways in his station wagon, helping people stranded on the road, then slips them a card that reads: "Assisting you has been my pleasure." Or why Mary Kay Gehring, 52, a former Portland, Oregon, chef, spends hours each week teaching struggling young women how to cook nutritiously for their families. "We're not talking about their drug use," she says. "We're talking about the carrots." Or why in January an estimated one million volunteers showed up at 13,000 projects across the country for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service—the largest turnout ever.

Public officials are taking the cues: last spring, with the enthusiastic urging of AARP and scores of other volunteer organizations, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, a $5.7 billion bill that significantly expands volunteer opportunities for Americans of all ages and helps nonprofit groups marshal and manage the thousands eager to do the work—from feeding the hungry and helping students achieve, to rebuilding cities and greening our communities. Though named for its major sponsor, the bill was a bipartisan coup, a fact marked most dramatically by the intriguing and patient collaboration between Senator Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and his friend and frequent ideological foe, Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah and coauthor of the bill.

Rarely in our history have people rallied so cohesively across partisan lines to try to make such good things happen. Hatch himself called the achievement a milestone—a nod to "a keystone of our country's traditions" and a big stride toward "renewing the can-do spirit" that in many ways is the essence of true patriotism.

He's got it right: for too long, patriotism has connoted an unfortunate jockeying about who best loves liberty. But we seem to be wearying of this aimless enervation of national spirit. Perhaps it was the accumulated grief of September 11, or the terrible incentive of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, or the debacle of Wall Street. In times such as these, when jobs, homes, and hopes are sliding away, it is hard to ignore our interdependence. If ever there was a time to band together and be inspired by do-gooders like Weller and Gehring, or start a neighborhood watch, or a barter exchange, or a modern-day bucket brigade, now is that moment.

Polls show that a majority of us subscribe to some version of charitable or volunteer service. And studies show that involvement makes us happier. It even seems to be correlated with a longer life span.

But where to begin and how to squeeze it in? The good news is that no one has to do it all. We tend to imagine that service means we can make "a world of difference" all by ourselves, or that it must be some soaring moment of visible and immediate transformation. This is a punishing standard, and a paralyzing one, unless we leaven our ideals with humility and a sense of proportion. Service can indeed mean putting one's life on the line in the military or giving over one's career to fostering children. But it also includes smaller but no less valuable contributions. It includes the man who stops smoking, stashes away a dollar every time he has a hankering for a cigarette, and gives the money to cancer research. It includes the woman who uses her backyard to teach children how to grow lettuce, the neighbors who socialize on Saturday morning by picking up litter in their local park, the college students who spend spring break hanging dry wall in New Orleans, the bored middle schooler who gets a spark of satisfaction working at the local food bank.

There's a lovely children's tale about a wanderer who comes to a town where all the inhabitants cry out that they are starving. The wanderer proclaims that stone soup is just the thing. To the wonderment of the townsfolk, he sets a large pot in the middle of the square, fills it with water, and places a stone in the pot. Then he instructs the people to go back to their homes and bring whatever they can to flavor the stone. This one brings a carrot; another, a potato; someone else, a turnip—and before long there is a bubbling stew sufficient to feed all.

We Americans have all the ingredients for a magnificent stone soup. But like Kay MacVey, 83, who with her Ames, Iowa, friends has clipped more than $1 million in coupons to ease the PX grocery bills of military families overseas, even more of us must come to the public square with the offering of our choice in hand—some small contribution to toss into what we have just begun to appreciate is a rather magical, all-encompassing pot.

Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr professor of law at Columbia University and a columnist for The Nation.

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