What does it mean to be a patriot? To be a traitor? Both words have recently been applied to Edward Snowden, a former government contractor who recently revealed some of the NSA's spying secrets. To some, Snowden is a truly patriotic and courageous individual who brooked personal risk of prosecution to bring nefarious (and Anti-American!) policies to light. To others, Snowden is a traitorous scumbag who betrayed his country by revealing classified information.
Are the definitions of the words "traitor" and "patriot" relative or do they have absolute meanings? Take one example from the American revolution, Benedict Arnold. Arnold was viewed as a traitor to the cause of American freedom because he sold out the American army he was supposed to be serving, while to British he was a true patriot in serving the just cause of Great Britain in fighting the rebels. At the time, how you viewed Benedict Arnold probably depended on which side of the war you were on, not so much an absolute definition of patriot or traitor.
July 4th is a time when we celebrate our "independence" from Great Britain, and we include in that celebration a litany of founding fathers. We tend to lump (dump?) all these individuals into one broad category of awesomeness and pure righteousness, but we forget that among them were Benedict Arnolds and even lukewarm "patriots" who may not have been 100% behind the war. There was disagreement even among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution over the form and direction the new nation should take. To me, remembering the humanness of these people is very American.
America can tolerate dissent and debate, and should not be afraid of open disagreement among Americans. The very fact that both those who despise and those who lionize Edward Snowden can each claim the mantle of patriotism is a quintessentially American idea. America does not mean that we all have to think alike or agree on what it means to be a patriot. A patriot is someone who takes the ideas of America and applies them in their own way, towards a better community and a better land. America is about building an open society that can survive Edward Snowden's revelations, absorb the knowledge, and become stronger through a discussion of whether this is something we want to do as a nation. It's important to have that conversation, because its an American conversation to have. Too often we claim exclusivity in our Americanism, saying that we are the "Real America" or that the other side is traitorous. Instead of throwing labels, let's listen to the other side and actually have an adult conversation about this NSA program, its pros and cons, and whether it is justified.
(And yes, it's ironic that I'm using a Russian song in my discussion about American dissent)