10/05/2014 11:04 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2014

Burn the American Flag! Or Not...

Patriotism is a complex notion.

Last month a high school senior in Lebanon, NH, Bhvana Kaushik, noticed the absence of an American flag at half-staff at the school on September 11. She questioned the new principal and, unsatisfied with his "Gee, I didn't notice" answer, gathered signatures to a petition and stirred the school to fix the snowplow-damaged flagpole and order a new flag. Ms. Kaushik, a dual citizen of India and the United States, called the flag's absence "shameful" and chastised the school for failing to remember 9/11's victims.

More recently, high school students in Arvada, Colorado took to the streets to protest a school board proposal to review schools' curricula to ensure that they promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise. The school board further seeks to prohibit materials that "encourage or condone civil disorder."

My initial reaction was to dismiss Ms. Kaushik's campaign as shallow, symbolic patriotism. Especially in the aftermath of 9/11, a nearly belligerent strain of patriotism has incited anti-Muslim furor, driven America into a decade of futile "war on terror," and surrendered critical thinking to mindless nationalism.

By contrast, the Colorado students are quite properly protesting what appears to be another manipulative incursion into civic life by the notorious Koch brothers, whose well-funded Americans for Prosperity organization seeks to turn America into a corporate theme park rimmed by American flags. Good for the students! The influence of the Koch brothers and their ideologue brethren is more dangerous than any terrorist organization. They and other climate-change-denying fossil fuel robber barons would sacrifice the planet in service of their greed.

But, of course, it's not that simple. Ms. Kaushik's activism is valuable too. Apathy is the primary enemy of justice.

Ms. Kaushik's inspiration was clearly cited in the original news article about her petition: "Her father, Bhanesh Kaushik, 54, a U.S. citizen who moved to this country in 1985, said he grew up with 'different standards from here.' He described learning patriotism from an early age in Indian schools in the 1970s. 'Your life you owe to your country first,' he said. A country provides its citizens with the five elements they need to live, he said, 'earth, water, fire, air, sky.' Respect for country isn't being taught in American schools today, he said."

This seems a common view of many Americans, particularly immigrants who have a perspective other than the relative comforts and freedoms of multi-generational American families. Many of the most passionate conservatives I've known have recent roots in Eastern Europe or other non-democratic regimes and have first-hand knowledge of repression. To such folks, many Americans simply take their privilege for granted and damn well ought to fly the flag, Pledge Allegiance each day, and cherish the national anthem.

The contrasts implicit in these two stories are a valuable civics lesson. Ms. Kaushik, her father, and millions of other Americans can and should remind us of our extraordinary good fortune. Despite Congressional malaise and sharp partisan nonsense, America's great democratic experiment is well into its third century. Our republic may be strained, but we continue to enjoy a broad level of prosperity and freedom.

But we celebrate ourselves at great peril if we fail to be vigilant and self-critical. Our democratic republic is less noble when seen through the experience of the Native Americans from whom we seized the country. Liberty and justice for all is a hollow slogan to the descendants of slavery, who are still disproportionately in literal or economic shackles, suffering from the ongoing repression of systemic racism. And, as cited above, the surge of nationalism gushing from our wounded pride led to a futile and costly war that seems to have no end.

Mr. Kaushik taught his daughter that a country provides its citizens with "earth, water, fire, air, sky." Yes, I suppose a country should. But the patriotic zealots behind the Colorado school board initiative are doing their best to soil the earth, poison the water, burn our forests, pollute our air and darken the sky.

Ms. Kaushik reminded us of our good fortune. The students in Colorado reminded us of our responsibility to question authority, challenge privilege and resist mindless conformity.

These are both good lessons.