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Dispatches from the present

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True Patriots

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I got my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in a government building buzzing with bureaucratic efficiency. The pens actually worked. The computers were fast. Antiseptic scented the air. Arrows on the floor led past a cardboard Dr. Fauci cutout to rows of numbered tables. Stacy, a traveling nurse from Tyler, Texas, administered my shot. She’d been working in a hospital in Brooklyn last spring; now her cohort was stationed in California. “We get to go home this summer,” she told me, sounding like a weary soldier. In the observation area, yacht rock played. A man with a megaphone cried, “Congratulations!” An American flag snapped in the breeze.

Vaccination is being pitched as patriotic, akin to buying a war bond or casting a vote or planting a victory garden. “It’s up to you,” says Barack Obama. George W. Bush wants to go to a baseball game. Across the country, friends describe the thrill of interacting with ultra-competent National Guard troops in Manhattan; the folksiness of getting their shot from the back of a pickup in a Tennessee parking lot; the conviviality of receiving a government-sealed paper card, plus a doughnut, while local firefighters mill around. It makes us proud to be Americans, to participate in this show of biopharmaceutical muscle and unfettered optimism. It’s the liberals—who perhaps don’t often see ourselves first and foremost as proud, red-blooded citizens—advocating that we all must do our part for our country.

At the same time, abstaining from the vaccine (a choice most common among conservative men) could also be perceived as patriotic. It indicates independence, a kind of fidelity to our nation’s original virtue. Some vaccine skeptics are medically minded—they’re concerned with side effects, question the shots’ rapid development or doubt they need the protection. But there’s also a political stubbornness: “I won’t do this because the government told me it was good.” This resistance to being manipulated and monitored is embodied in the outcry over vaccine passports. When I speak with family members who don’t think they’ll get vaccinated, they wonder if I’ve read every article I should about how the shots were tested, and how those rare blood clots form in the veins. They wonder if I’m just going along with things. I’m not! And also, I am. I think the vaccine is safe and effective. But I’m also reluctant to ostracize myself. I don’t want to be an outlier. If Bush’s baseball game requires a passport, I’ll get one.

These two strains of patriotic expression—duty vs. defiance, the community vs. the individual—aren’t so easily categorized as “liberal” and “conservative.” It’s not that the conservatives, even “drain the swamp” proponents, don’t like some institutions and obligations: the family, the church, police, the military. Meanwhile, the left is taking a knee for the National Anthem, blocking traffic in a Black Lives Matter protest and insisting that the old order must be turned upside down, right before we ask everyone to follow the rules and please, please mask up. We’re all likely to yell “traitor” in one moment, then turn around and piously pronounce that true loyalty to one’s country is disloyalty to its systems.

But what should be done with those systems after the disloyalty is done? It seems to be a fundamental disagreement. If liberals largely believe that government is good, they also believe it can be improved upon: with policies and procedures, reparations and taxes, laws and careful litigation. Take vaccine distribution as an example. More shots are getting into wealthier, whiter arms. A system has once again proven susceptible to racism and class privilege. But that’s a problem we can solve, we insist, with priority zip codes and community ambassadors and materials in languages other than English. Any anger we have at “the way things are” is perhaps mostly a lover’s disappointment with the institutions and interventions we believe in.

For conservatives, that belief is misdirected. I can understand why: big government and big pharma and big culture haven’t always been kind to any of us. But patriotism does require something to love—if not Dr. Fauci, perhaps the little collectives of home and neighborhood, our local causes, our fellow Americans. Grievance and suspicion alone won’t cut it. Freedom must be in the service of something, and it must be limited by the needs of others; otherwise, it quickly becomes petulant. If conservative patriotism becomes equivalent with mistrust of everything and everyone—then that love of country starts to look very meager indeed.

Sitting under the white tent, though, waiting to see if my throat closed up, who was I to talk? The shot was for the economy! For the restaurants! For the schools! To get us back to normal! To get us moving forward! The yacht rock played, and a man watching us for rashes told jokes, and I felt good about myself. Of course, the shot was also to keep myself safe—to protect my own health and the little group of people I care for. It was both selfless and selfish: like any patriotism, like any true love.