I was born in 1975 and the short arc of my history has lasted just 41 years, longer than I expected by 37, 32, 17, 6, or 3 years, depending on how you look at it. During four decades, administrations and social movements came and went, and injustice and inequality remained--though progress was made, it came in fits and spurts. The rights some had didn’t extend to everyone, neither in theory nor in practice. But in that time, no matter how tumultuous, some constants remained.
The press prided itself on holding public officials accountable, and were not prosecuted for it. We had religion and we had federal policy but they were not one and the same. Our highest public officials did not expect nor require adulation. Power transitioned peacefully, elections were held on time, losers did not refuse to concede, and most of the time, the Supreme and other Courts did not appoint politicians over the will of the people. Foreign governments did not interfere with our elections. Generals did not control our cities. Conflicts of interest mattered, and politicians at all levels could be held accountable. Individuals and communities protested, and sometimes, people were jailed, beaten, or even killed. When this happened, it was a blight on the country’s image. Sometimes, social progress was borne out of those struggles. Sometimes, it wasn’t. Civilians who worked for federal agencies were just that, civilians doing a job, and neither Congress nor the Presidential Administration wielded power over their livelihoods or ability to communicate with the public at large or public officials anywhere. Science was a goal, one of the highest and most esteemed professions; as students we learned about “scientific methods” in order to understand what was true, what was provable, and, even, what was important. Science was not seen as dissent, as going rogue. Academia was revered, being smart and learned was seen as a benefit to society. Enabling children to attain high levels of education was a goal we were bad at doling out equally…but it was a goal all the same. Society sought to fight the specter of nuclear war.
We had truth and we had lies and we had a general understanding that there was a difference between them, which was important.
It used to be different.
And when it was different, I knew a patriot. I’m writing this here to let you know that I remember.
I once knew a patriot who was a nun who knew I was an atheist and liked me anyway. She was so fierce in her activism for the poor that her order eventually forced her out of Chicago to a small town in Iowa, where she would be less conspicuous. I asked her why she would be asked to give up her calling just because she was so good at it, and I thought she might cry when she invoked God’s will. She is just one face that comes to mind as I think about the patriots I’ve known. There are hundreds more behind her face, and thousands behind the memory of the hundreds, and millions more besides.
I once knew a patriot. In fact, I knew quite a few.
I once knew a patriot who stood up for the rights of the disenfranchised. He came from Wales. She came from Mexico. He came from Haiti, India, Cuba, the Netherlands. She came from Ghana, Puerto Rico. He and she came from Bronzeville and the Bronx, the plains and the panhandle.
I once knew a patriot who dedicated her life to studying and attempting to eradicate inequality. She had been raped. He had had a drug problem. He was a Rhodes Scholar. She graduated high school at 15. She spoke seven languages fluently. He was a doctor. She had had an abortion. He had cancer. She didn’t have legs. He had been in prison. She had to escape her abusive family. He had been homeless. He married a man. She didn’t see the point in getting married, to a man or a woman or anyone.
I once knew a patriot who protested war. I once knew a patriot who criticized the President. I once knew a patriot who didn’t believe in God. I once knew a patriot who was devout but not Christian. I once knew a patriot who wrote poetry instead of doing other things she could have done. I once knew a patriot who didn’t trust the police. I once knew a patriot who didn't believe in patriotism.
I once knew patriots, people of all walks of life, who did what they could to make the world a little less cruel, who spent their lives trying to be better and make something better.
I once knew a patriot who wrote things down.
And just because someone comes along and says this is all a lie, or calls him or her by another name, doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t true.
I once knew a patriot. I remember.