A lot of navel-gazing pundits are bandying around the word ‘hero’ to describe people who are simply doing their jobs under difficult or even dangerous conditions. This has led to an understandable–and correct–backlash from those who are putting themselves at risk, who argue that they didn’t sign up for this level of exposure and risk (a risk that is further compounded by inadequate supplies and provisions). Calling them heroes makes it too easy to ignore our complicity in the unnecessary risks in which these workers find themselves.
So what do we call them? I want to reclaim the word patriot. Admittedly, the word patriot has fallen on hard times with rightwing AK-47-toting gun dorks using the word–not to mention right wing terrorists. But why should they have ‘ownership’ that word?
It’s a good word to describe people whose job makes the country a better place. That doesn’t mean, like most people, they don’t worry about things like career promotion, paychecks, and so on–they’re human. But a critical part of the job, which is one of their motivations for doing the job, is that the job makes the lives of their countrymen, fellow citizens, and neighbors better. That some people do this can seem quaint and old-fashioned to some, especially the powerful (does anyone really think Jarvanka truly understand this concept?).
Importantly, the term doesn’t require sacrifice, though in a heavily militarized society like the U.S. the term is too often wrapped up in sacrifice, just service. A kindergarten teacher shouldn’t have to be cool under fire to serve and serve well.
Patriotism shouldn’t–and doesn’t–require nerves of steel; some people just aren’t wired that way. But lots of people can serve, and are willing to do so. Let’s take back the term patriot to describe them.