My wife and I visited Washington D.C. for the first time to soak up the sights. Among them was a statue I’ve researched and written about for decades but had never seen. The trip filled me with patriotism.

When I say patriotism, I don’t mean simply the flag-waving variety, although I love that form. I enjoy ceremonies celebrating our national holidays, be it Veterans Day, Labor Day, or the 4th of July. When we lived on Beloit, I blasted patriotic music for the people walking back from the fireworks. There is plenty of this kind of patriotism on display in D.C.

Democracy is endangered, though, when we define patriotism as only an uncritical love for our country. This happened in the ’50s when a house committee condemned citizens for being “Un-American.” It occurred again in the ’60s when the slogan was, “America, Love it or Leave it.” It’s happening today, when leaders equate patriotism with blind nationalism. 

No American has a monopoly on patriotism. Patriotism can be volunteering for community service, or enlisting in the military. Voting is a simple act of patriotism. Patriotism means supporting active-duty soldiers as well as veterans. 

It can also mean protesting what we believe is an unjust war. A group of us from Forest Park held up signs on the Eisenhower overpasses, criticizing the Iraq War. 

Dissent is a time-honored expression of patriotism. The slogan on D.C. license plates is “Taxation Without Representation.” It is a protest of the resident’s lack of voting rights and a call for statehood. Dissent was displayed in mini-protests across the capital.

We didn’t go to D.C. to see protests, though. We went to view the magnificent memorials that honor our history. These iconic monuments made me feel like I was in a movie — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to be precise. I felt like naïve, idealistic Senator Jefferson Smith when he saw the monuments for the first time.

We started with the World War II Monument, honoring the conflict in which both our fathers fought. Beyond this was the Capitol Reflecting Pool, which evoked memories of MLK.

At the Lincoln Memorial, I got choked up reading Lincoln’s simple but stirring words. When a young dad recited the Gettysburg Address to his son, I turned away to keep from losing it. 

The MLK Memorial, carved from rough-hewn granite, reminded me of Stone Mountain, Georgia, which King cited in his “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Next was the FDR Memorial, depicting Roosevelt in his wheelchair. It’s massive, chronicling his four terms as president. Finally, we came to the Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson never said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” But he did say, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing for America.”

We had one more destination: The “Death of Cleopatra” statue in the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.

When we found her, I could see that Cleopatra had been through an ordeal. Though she has been magnificently restored, there are still signs of the wear and tear she suffered during her 70 years in Forest Park.

The statue is dissent in stone. Edmonia Lewis depicted the death of an African queen, who had been betrayed by powerful men. It echoed Edmonia’s betrayal by her college classmates and the racial prejudice she endured throughout her life. 

When we returned to our hotel, a young girl was singing “This Land is Your Land” to her little brother. Woody Guthrie wrote that song as a protest against “God Bless America.” 

The beauty of our democracy is that we can sing either song to show our love for America. 

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.