Thursday, May 30, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #110 - Part 6


So we just had the Memorial Day weekend and the semi-official start, if not the actual astronomical start, of summer.

And of course, as always, the weekend was festooned with flags and bunting and celebrations of things military and effusive expressions of thanks to all our men and women in uniform linked to declarations of patriotism that seem invariably to involve swirling flags and martial music.

I want to raise a dissenting voice. I want to talk about patriotism.

When I've talked or written about this general subject before, I've always noted at the beginning that I know that what I say will be misunderstood by some and deliberately twisted by others - and I've never been disappointed in that expectation. So I say it again here. I will try to be clear but I know that no matter how hard I try, for some I will fail.

To start: I am not a patriot.

And right away, I have to amend that. I am not a patriot in the shallow way the term is usually understood. I do not wear a flag pin. I do not put my hand over my heart during the national anthem (which, I’ll note in passing, I was taught as a child was something that some folks did but was not required). I do not sing along with the national anthem. In fact, I don’t even stand up for the national anthem. I will note that I certainly don't intend to give offense that way, so I usually manage to be out of the room at the time.

And I don't celebrate soldiers, nor do I, as candidate Barack Obama called on us to do, "always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period," thus exempting those folks from any and all moral judgment. I can and do celebrate individual soldiers - but not "soldiers" as a category. As I have said and written several times, soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform does not make you a hero, it does not make you or your life more worthy of honor or respect than anyone else's.

Joseph Darby, the soldier who revealed the abuses at Abu Ghraib, is a hero. The soldiers in his unit who in response threatened him to the point that he had to be shipped out early for his own safety, are not. Bradley Manning, the man who revealed war crimes committed by US troops in Iraq, is a hero. The soldiers who committed those crimes, such as those in the video called "Collateral Murder," are not.

So, I say again, I am not a patriot. Except that I am. How? Let me explain.

Patriotism that consists in, that is measured in terms of, wearing flag pins, singing the national anthem, and the like is worthless and even dangerous. It is a shallow, a hollow “patriotism,” a shell that prefers form to substance and too easily, as we have seen over the last years, slides from “patriotism” into jingoism. If, as someone said a while back, “patriotism requires no apologies,” neither should it require conscious demonstration.

And to try to head off some of that misunderstanding I expect, don’t bother claiming I said wearing a flag pin or whatever is itself “hollow.” I said that a patriotism measured or defined in those terms rather than by a deeper commitment is hollow. And it is.

But that obviously raises the immediate question of "what deeper commitment." What does it consist of - or, more exactly here, what do I think it consists of?

Well first, saying it consists of a commitment to "flag and country" is meaningless, empty, it's the vapid patriotism of bumper stickers and needlepoint homilies. It doesn't mean anything. Saying it's based on the supposed fact that "this is the greatest country in the world" is nothing short of absurd - unless, that is, you want to tell me which country is the 7th greatest or the 14th greatest or the 63rd greatest. Because to say this is the greatest country means you must have some objective standard by which countries can be judged and ranked. I can't imagine what such a standard could be since on so many social scales - inequality, poverty, child poverty, access to health care, the list goes on - we rank so embarrassingly low and even on some of our proudest achievements, such as the Bill of Rights, we are losing ground.

And a patriotism based on calling out Stephen Decatur's famous line "my country, right or wrong" is downright dangerous. Unless, that is, you want to amend it to the version of then-Senator Carl Schurz, who said in the 1870s "our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: Our country - when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right."

BTW, look up Carl Schurz. Interesting guy. And his quote about "true patriotism" points toward my own convictions.

In addition to embracing the comment I read some years ago that “it is natural to have an abiding affection for the land of one’s birth,” I say being an US patriot means being dedicated to the ideals on which the country was supposed to have been founded and which, at its best moments, it strives to uphold to as full a measure as possible: Ideals such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as the right to rebellion against oppression, as “promot[ing] the general welfare,” as political freedoms, as representative government “of, by, and for the people” - the ideal of, to sum up in a single phrase, an intent to “establish justice,” a justice I say must include the economic and the social as well as the political if it is to have real meaning.

Patriotism means embracing those ideals; it means striving to hold this country to the highest of those ideals instead of the lowest of its prejudices, as committing to a notion of what the US, of what we as a people, can be and have at times approached being.

Patriotism, that is, lies in the devotion to the ideals, not in any symbolic outward expression of it. Further, patriotism thus does not lie in support for or opposition to any particular administration or any particular policy except insofar as that support or opposition is an expression of that internal commitment to those ideals. Someone who during the Bush administration who opposed the Iraq War and was angered by Bush's usurpation of power was much more patriotic than the war supporters who kept referring to Bush as “the commander-in-chief” as if we were all soldiers expected to obey orders rather than citizens with an obligation held by any free people to “question authority.” And someone during the Obama administration who denounces his unprecedented attacks on whistleblowers and is outraged by his mad claim that he can on his own authority order the assassination of Americans without trial or charge is more patriotic than the Obamabots who stand silent in the face of the drone war and are incapable of seeing the very obvious distance between dissent based on political rejection and dissent based on racism.

So on that basis, on that understanding of patriotism, I submit to you that I am as patriotic as they come. And I have neither patience with nor tolerance for those who would make patriotism a matter of gestures and decorations rather than conviction. And I have even less of either patience with or tolerance for those who would try to prove their patriotism by impugning mine.

I am not a patriot. Except that I am.


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