A recent post, on The Pain, When Will It End said this:

I’m also fascinated by, and admire, the relationship between the Egyptian people and its army—the passionate respect of the people for its army, the loyalty of the army to the people--so unlike our own rote obeisance to Supporting the Troops by purchasing magnetic ribbons.

We’ve got a lot of rites of passage and hollow symbols in America these days. Politicians can’t be seen in public without The Lapel Pin Indicating That I Am Not A Communist. Displaying those totems is neither necessary nor sufficient to be patriotic. It’s like the relationship between regular church attendance and being a good person. Sure, some decent people do it and some jerks do not – but there are counterexamples on both sides.

It turns out that patriotism, support for the troops, solidarity, and all those things have less to do with absolutism than with flexibility and a willingness to admit that you might be wrong.

When I have the chance, I train in Jiu Jitsu at the Hybrid Training Center in Virginia Beach. This is a mixed martial arts gym populated by some of the toughest and most authentically patriotic people I’ve ever met. Air Force and Navy mingle freely – as do special forces veterans and civilians.

At the height of the health care debate last year, I was down there, warming up with the guys, preparing to take class. One of the senior instructors wandered over and asked: “Hey Boston, what’s this health care thing that Obama is trying to sell us?” After a couple of protestations that I didn’t think it was wise to talk politics before we beat the tar out of each other (especially given that this guy is really pretty tough by any standards) – I opened up. I did my best to share my understanding. A small crowd gathered, still stretching and warming up, with some of them jumping in with ideas and observations.

I knew for certain that I was doomed.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I was all alone on the liberal side of the fence in that crowd. I was a New England intellectual, hanging out in a mostly-military fight school in southern Virginia. I’ve got a highly developed system for surviving as a travelling martial artist. That system revolves around the core axiom shut the hell up. If you shut up and work hard, most of the time, you do okay. In this instance, I took a risk and I talked.

Here’s the magic though – they met me halfway. We communicated, and where there were differences we had a respectful understanding that the problem was probably not that one of us secretly hated America. The problem, as we rolled ideas around, was probably either in some detail of the plan, in our understanding of it, or perhaps in our differing social situations. There was an awareness all around that something could be good for some of us, bad for others, and still be a part of an excellent solution.

At no point in the entire conversation – or the ensuing ass-kicking – did I feel any stress to change my political views because of physical intimidation. I did feel somewhat pressured to adjust my ground game. That’s a different story.

That’s very close to my ideal of patriotic dialogue in the United States: Patriots have the courage to engage our national problems directly – with open minds and forceful, respectful dialogue – with no implied threats or sham symbolism. They accept that the goal is not for the red team or the blue team, in particular, to win. The goal is the good of the nation, and the world at large. Because we think hard and fight hard, we can leave this place just a bit better than we found it.

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