Monday, February 25, 2008

And it's not even the Fourth of July

As I expect many of you know, carried an article about wingnut charges and rumors that Barack Obama is "unpatriotic" based on his failure to wear a flag lapel pin and that photo of him standing with hands crossed in front of him during the playing of the national anthem. Related to that story, the site ran a disgraceful poll asking if he shows "the proper patriotism" for someone who wants to be president.

In comments at Media Matters, that brought up the whole issue of patriotism, with several people denouncing in various words the idea of lapel pins as a measure of patriotism. One troll there quoted three of the terms used, applied them to patriotism per se, and then suggested that was "the predominant feeling on the left." I decided I would answer with my own take on the overall question, which follows:

Patriotism measured in terms of wearing flag pins, having your hand over your heart during the national anthem, and the like is worthless, dangerous, and overrated, all three. It is a hollow "patriotism," a shell that prefers form to substance and too easily, as we have seen over the last several years, slides from "patriotism" into jingoism.

(And no, don't bother claiming I said wearing a flag pin, etc., is "hollow," as that would be the reverse of my argument. I in no way denied that such actions could be outward expressions of a deeper commitment; I said that a patriotism measured in those terms rather than by that deeper commitment is hollow. And it is.)

You want my understanding of patriotism? Well, maybe not but here it is anyway:

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 a 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.

(Another sidebar: Yes, I know "one of these things is not like the others" in the above list. Don't waste our time with irrelevant quibbles.)

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. An opponent of the Iraq war who is angered by the Executive branch's usurpation of power is much more patriotic than a war supporter who keeps referring to the president as "the commander-in-chief" as if we were all soldiers expected to obey orders rather than citizens with the obligation held by any free people to "question authority."

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 - and I know this will promote ammo for some and lead others to say I undermine my argument, but I don't care, it's the truth - I don't even stand up for the national anthem. (Not intending to give offense thereby, I usually manage to be out of the room at the time.)

But if patriotism can be understood as embracing the ideals of our nation, as 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, then I submit 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.

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