Friday, February 13, 2015


By Ronald T. Fox   

One of the more serious, but as yet rarely discussed questions emerging from the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center is about the nature of patriotism.  Nearly all Americans believe they are patriotic, but there are vastly different interpretations as to what constitutes patriotism.   At its core, most would agree, patriotism involves love and devotion to the country, but there is wide disagreement as to what love and devotion means and what it requires of citizens. In America, there are two leading schools of thought on the meaning of patriotism:  one sees it as meaning unquestioned loyalty to the United States, the other as loyalty to our democratic principles and ideals. Let me say up front that I subscribe to the later interpretation.

The subject of patriotism came up in a recent argument I had with an old college friend of conservative persuasion. The argument was triggered by a statement he made that basketball star Steve Nash was "un-American" because he spoke out publicly against the War in Iraq (I know, he's a Canadian).  (For my comments on Nash's patriotism, see my Busch League Sports post: Steve Nash: A True Patriot.)

My friend proudly announced that he believed patriotism means love of country expressed in unquestioned support for a strong military and for our troops wherever they are deployed, regardless of the cause for which they fight or what actions they take in the arena of war. He believes all Americans should salute whatever forceful actions our government takes in the name of national security, even if this means bombing villages, using drones to assassinate suspected bad guys, employing torture, or spying on Americans.  The killing of innocents in our quest for security is justified as unfortunate "collateral damage."  It comes with the territory. He dismissed efforts to settle disputes with our enemies peacefully as "appeasement."

The United States is the best, he told me. It is disloyal to question  our motives and purposes.  Along with many, perhaps most, Americans, he believes in his country "right or wrong."  

I agreed with him that American citizens should stand up for their country, but only when it acts in accordance with the values and ideals upon which our nation was founded.  When the United States faces an existential threat, citizens are of course obligated to answer the nation’s calling.  When the threat is not to our survival, however, patriotism obligates citizens to only support well-reasoned—and legal—policies and actions that are in the best interests of the country.  

In the Middle East, I told him, the U.S. has done things in the name of national security that have caused harmful blowbacks.  Our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, military bases throughout the region, and use of drones have been a major catalyst for anti-Americanism and radicalization.  As a recent U.N. Report noted, Washington’s current air campaign against the Islamic State has led foreign militants to join the movement on “an unprecedented scale.” The small al Qaeda terrorist cell we originally targeted in our war on terrorism has mushroomed into hundreds of affiliates, united not by a centralized command, but by attraction to the jihadist idea.  Our military technology can extinguish individual terrorists, but not the idea that drives their fanaticism.    
And now President Obama, saying ISIS poses a “grave threat” to U.S. national security, wants Congress to authorize fighting Islamic State terrorists in Iraq, Syria, and wherever they show their ugly, bearded heads.  Neoconservatives are saying our fight amounts to "World War IV" (III apparently was the Cold War).  Such apocalyptic warnings grossly exaggerate the danger we face.  To be sure, a "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria represents a very serious threat to the United States--more serious than al Qaeda--but it's not existential and it doesn't mean our response should be military escalation.  We've been there, done that, and it's only made matters worse.  For every bad guy we kill a worse guy emerges.  Jihadists must be jubilant. 

Cheerleading or even quiet acquiescence to an expansion in the use of military force in the region is not the patriotic thing to do.  Americans need to ask tough questions.  What sense does it make to repeat a strategy that has failed so miserably in the past?    What price will we pay this time?  Are we heading for endless war?     

I saw his face redden and the veins pop out of his neck.  I sensed the contempt he held for academic eggheads who never fought for our country.  After going back and forth on the subject, we realized it was fruitless to argue further.  Such is as it is with partisan ideological debates these days.  Debate only seems to harden positions; common ground is illusive.  We went our separate ways, both convinced of the correctness of our positions.    
The debate got me to think more deeply about patriotism.  My friend thinks of patriotism as a natural and appropriate expression of attachment to the United States, the country of his birth and to which he is grateful for all the benefits it has enabled him to achieve. I too have a strong attachment to my country, but my attachment derives from pride in the democratic values inculcated by our founding fathers.  I think of patriotism more in moral terms.  To me, patriotism is the awareness of our moral obligations to uphold principles and ideals enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. It entails allegiance to such political and moral ideals as inalienable human rights, freedom, self-determination, justice, the rule of law, and promotion of the common good. A patriot stands up for the country when it acts in accordance with these ideals and has a moral obligation to speak out when it doesn't.  

Love of our country does not obligate American citizens to be loyal to government activities that are contrary to the values for which we stand. Flying the flag, saluting the troops, and shouting “USA, USA” are not genuine expressions of patriotism.  They seem contrived efforts to overcome doubt about America's present role in the world rather than true expressions of pride and conviction.  Real patriotism must be made of sterner stuff.

Pledging allegiance to whatever the government does in the name of the security of the state is not patriotism, it's a virulent version of nationalism.  It stems, as Emma Goldman put it, from "the conceit, arrogance, and egotism of peusdo-patriots who consider their nation superior, nobler, wiser and more esteemed than other nations." It encompasses a belief many Americans hold that our country is truly exceptional and can do no wrong. This brand of "patriotism" is what Samuel Johnson had in mind when he referred to patriotism as "the last refuge of a scoundrel."  Oscar Wilde labeled it the "virtue of the vicious." Perhaps Guy de Maupassant put it best when he said "patriotism is the egg from which wars are hatched."  It is this hyper-nationalistic version of patriotism that provokes a psychological hatred for those outside our territory who don’t share our ways and are critical of the U.S. Since America is exceptional, it should be revered, not opposed, or so the peusdo-patriots believe.

By manipulating fear and hatred, usually by conjuring up some kind of bogeyman (in my youth it was Communism, now its international terrorism), government officials believe they can compel public obedience to their definition of what’s best for the country, a definition that may not square with what is legal, wise, or in the collective good of the nation.  It’s up to an informed public to let the government know when it’s doing wrong.  This will undoubtedly annoy the power elite, who will go to great lengths to muzzle and discredit critics, but protest must persist.  It’s when voices are silent that we blunder into disasters. 

Inside the U.S., blind loyalty to unfair and unjust government policies and practices have allowed discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual choice, and religion to endure, causing immeasurable suffering and making a mockery of our claims of democratic virtue. Where would America be if not for activists who protested for liberty and justice for all?

When I think of true American patriots, I think of founding activists like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, men who opposed and acted against British rule of the colonies. They even called for revolt against King George, whose government had become destructive of the principle of consent of the governed. I think of Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail to protest the War of 1812. I recall tireless champions of rights and liberties, people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Sitting Bull, Russell Means, Harvey Milk, and Howard Zinn, to name just a few. I think of all the brave souls who actively opposed the undeclared wars in Vietnam and Iraq and those who have spoken out against the U.S. use of torture. I also fondly think of whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden who made the American public aware government wrongdoing and the dangers of secrecy.

Patriots all, these good citizens made great personal sacrifices in their fights to ensure America lived up to its moral obligations. They struggled against great odds and at significant economic and personal risk, which often included jailing and beatings.  They were called conspirators, seditionists, traitors, terrorists, and un-American by government loyalists they opposed. Yet they fought on. History has validated their struggles.  This is how it has to be.  Patriotic protest is our only defense against ourselves, the only foe that can defeat us.

1 comment:

  1. I so agree with your post Ron Fox! It is thoughtful, and well stated. My feeling has been how dangerous it is to think "my country, right or wrong", rather than stand up when she is right, and to be willing to take a part in correcting her course when she is is wrong. True patriotism is paying attention, not to the spin, but to the heart of the matter. I don't get how people will claim to be patriots by taking the lazy way out, in unthinking lockstep. It's like some of us are not paying attention to history. Maybe some of us are so used to being spoon fed on the boob tube that we have forgotten how to have a thoughtful and intelligent discussion, or haven't learned how to give and receive constructive criticism. It's so simplistic to put the blame for all of our troubles on others when it might be best to first take a good look at ourselves. It works on an individual level in our homes and our families, and in the larger arena as well. If we learn to think and act with integrity we might actually teach others by our example to do the same.


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