Saturday, July 05, 2008

One More Column About Patriotism

(News-Herald, July 3) A love affair with one’s country is like any other kind of love affair—there are lots of stupid ways to get it wrong.

There’s blind patriotism. Like any other blind love, this is just an invitation to disaster.

There’s nothing wrong with patriotism as a kind of unconditional love. But there’s a big difference between “My country—right or wrong” and “My country is always right.” The first is loyalty; the second is stupidity.

We’ve made some mistakes, gotten some things wrong. That does not make us unique—we are not, for instance, the only country to ever institutionalize slavery. We are, however, one of the few countries to ever get rid of it on our own.

Monarchs, despots, tyrants, totalitarians—they all depend on a belief that the government is always right. We have always had the flexibility to change our collective minds, to move in another direction.

But that can only happen when people are able and willing to speak up and say, “I don’t think this is working.” Refusing to question the government is not love of country; it’s just blind obedience to the tyrant of the month.

We have always needed dissenting voices. They require a tolerance for a loud chorus, arguing and disagreeing, inefficiently tugging in many directions. We’ve been that way since day one. Our constitution is a cobbled-together mess of compromise and disagreement, and our government started arguing about it immediately, often in fairly vigorous, abusive and violent ways. Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” but he also said “George Washington stinks and this government is a bollixed-up mess” (I’m paraphrasing a bit).

It’s not patriotic to say, “My country’s wrong, so I’m going to leave and become a citizen of Slobovia.” Neither is it patriotic to say, “My country’s never wrong, and people who criticize it should be thrown in jail.” (We actually had that law under John Adams, but critics convinced the government it was wrong, and we got rid of it.) It is no act of love to say, “Oh well—if my spouse is driving toward a cliff, I should just not look ahead and not criticize.” You can’t fix what you refuse to see.

Blind patriotism often connects to ignorant patriotism. We Americans have plenty of stories about our history that we love to tell, and many are wrong. For example, neither “America was founded to establish government free of all trace of religion” and “America was founded to be a Christian nation” are both wrong. (I’m not getting into the details today, but feel free to start writing those letters.)

Our arguments about law and society are laced with “proof” that isn’t true. And our many attempts to transplant the tree of liberty to other gardens have been hampered by our lack of understanding of how it took root here in the first place.

Ignorant patriotism is like your daughter who brings home the fiancé that she met yesterday; she knows nothing about him, she “just feels” that he will make a great husband. Not a great plan.

Finally, there’s inactive patriotism. This is like the couple that gets married secretly; they have the piece of paper, but they never do anything about it and nobody sees a hint that they’re together.

Saying you’re a patriot doesn’t cut it if you used a lame excuse to get out of jury duty and you haven’t voted in ten years. We don’t even need to talk about what you’ve done for the entire country—our country is made out of many small places, each in its own way like the many slices of Venangoland. Our townships that can’t find enough people to serve in local office are suffering from inactive patriots.

Fourth of July is the great community holiday. You can celebrate most other holidays at home in your own way. Nobody celebrates July 4 at home in his own way.

That’s because patriotism means taking responsibility for some portion of your community. Patriotism is about being part of a larger body of people and so it takes a gathering, whether in Cranberry last night, Oil City tonight, or Franklin tomorrow, to properly mark the occasion.

If you want a worthwhile discussion of patriotism, never mind the question of whether ours is a great land. It is. The real question is what have you done to help make it great. You say you love her; what have you done about it?


Roger "Duff" Doherty said...

Hey Peter, great post. I agree with your assessment of patriotism. I'm dangerously close to being an "inactive patriot".

My only quip is with Adam's "Alien and Sedition Acts". The law was designed to curb abuses in the press related to outragious falsehoods regarding the character and conduct of the president designed to destabilize public support for the administration, not to quash dissent.

It was a bad law, agreed, but a very understandable mistake in our fledgling democracy. It's a shame that this is the thing that people remember John Adams for.

Dittman said...

More importantly, I think, Adams' poor judgment paved the way for Wilson's 1917 Alien Acts, the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1919 Palmer Raids all of which provided not only the foundation for the later internment of "enemy aliens" and was eventually interpreted to allow control over radical groups who disagreed with government policies (including policies on the war), government control of the railroads and a dramatic assault on civil liberties. Contained in part of the act is this telling language:
The Attorney General is hereby authorized to make and declare, from time to time, such regulations concerning the movements of alien enemies as he may deem necessary in the premises and for the public safety, and to provide in such regulations for monthly, weekly, or other periodical report by alien enemies to federal, state or local authorities; and all alien enemies shall report at the times and places and to the authorities specified in such regulations.
Its history is a nightmare from which we have yet to awake.

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