What You Should Think About Patriotism

“There are two Americas. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power.

–J. William Fulbright

Well before terrorists transformed the New York City skyline, America’s loudest political conservatives made no secret of beliefs that their kind had a monopoly on patriotism. With a shocking national trauma came much greater zeal in these assertions of patriotic supremacy. The sense in those claims has always been elusive. On an obvious level, confusing ideological conviction with national loyalty is problematic. Yet there are much more subtle and insidious problems with this phenomenon as well.

A public stirred by strong emotions may be so moved as to accept arguments that it is innately patriotic to agree with national leaders. The powers that be are presumed right without any regard for the particulars of their positions and actions. This creates a situation where no distortion of fact nor abuse of power is subjected to adequate public scrutiny. The greatest virtue, and the greatest strength, of popular rule is discarded in favor of a paradigm that conflates a nation with its present regime.

Clear understanding can come through direct experience. Hermann Göring lived long enough after the fall of the Third Reich to share what understanding could be gleaned from his role in history. During the Nuremburg Trials, psychologist Gustave Gilbert was able to engage the former Luftwaffe chief in extensive frank conversations. In one exchange, Gilbert seemed confident that democracy would prevent any American President from dragging the nation into acts of imperialist aggression. Göring disputed the notion that popular rule could restrain such belligerence, “all you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

At the very least, wars in Viet Nam and Iraq validate that insight from a doomed Nazi aviator. The rationale for waging full scale war in each instance was simply not credible. False narratives crafted by White House media experts generated public support for each misadventure. Deliberately misleading language or even outright lies were not subject to sufficient public scrutiny. Warnings of dire threats from remote corners of the world were at odds with verifiable facts. Still fears swept over our nation. Promises of a swift military campaign paving the way for a rosy future ranged from implausible to absurd. Yet they were passed along by esteemed journalists as if they were the result of sound informed analysis.

Years enough have passed that the hindsight on Viet Nam is nearly universal. The domino theory characterized capitalism and democracy as fragile flowers that would certainly be crushed by the indomitable power of communism and fascism unless vigorous military action was taken. Nonsense it may be, but it was a foreign policy doctrine that spawned all manner of affirming editorials and even scholarly works of support. It was just one among a legion of lies that only brought America to war because sound skepticism was denounced as anti-American sentiment.

Just as the Soviet Union was real, so is Al Qaeda. Just as Viet Nam was no stepping stone to Kansas, the road to terrorizing the U.S. homeland did not run through Iraq. That past tense is appropriate, because today the many thousands of Iraqi widowers and orphans know the deepest of miseries, all courtesy of Uncle Sam’s bullets and bombs. It is reasonable to think that a small portion of these tragic victims should become consumed by hate, willing to sacrifice themselves as tools of mayhem. There can be no doubt that today Iraq is home to many terrorists dedicated to making Americans suffer.

Yet, as with the domino theory, arguments that prewar Iraq posed a serious threat to U.S. national security were bogus on their face. After all, Al Qaeda’s foremost priority was to eliminate secular governance throughout the Middle East. Saddam Hussein presided over one of the strongest secular governments in the region. Christians, agnostics, and even atheists were all protected under his regime. He was a brutal tyrant, but in that regard he was one of many. Some others continue to enjoy the active support of America’s present administration.

It was reasonable to assert that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. On the other hand, “he has to go” was the peak on a mountain of nonsense that would have collapsed if only a healthy measure of skepticism had been applied. As with Viet Nam, the call to make war against a non-threat was infused with both great urgency and absurd optimism. Pundits supporting the aggression predicted a total price tag of one or two billion dollars, likely to be repaid within a year or two by a gratefully liberated Iraq. Anyone who disputed that American troops could expect spontaneous gifts of flowers and candy from Iraqi civilians was ridiculed as anti-American and ill-informed.

Misguided appeals to patriotism blinded the nation to the realities of pending disaster. Thousands of our own soldiers have joined tens of thousands of slaughtered Iraqis in paying the ultimate price for this war. Yet it has done much more to degrade conditions in Iraq than to improve them. Hopefully one day that territory will be a better place to live than it was under Hussein’s Baathist regime. Presently the reverse is unmistakably true. As for the two billion dollar price tag — we should be so lucky that a week passes without spending that much on Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson never said or wrote, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet history does reveal that there are instances where dissent against leadership provides a service to country while support of leadership constitutes a disservice. The American Revolution took place to give free people a chance to live in a society where the head of state wields limited power and is not regarded as a personal embodiment of the nation itself. Strains of imperialist monarchy return whenever an American President or his supporters use patriotism as a shield against reasonable critiques of flawed public policy or inaccurate public information.

Supporting a President does not make you a good American. Opposing a President does not make you a good American. Making your best effort to become informed about relevant issues, then expressing your earnest opinion without regard for its relationship to any President’s agenda — now those are the deeds of a good American. Leaders, the great as well as the terrible, will come and go. The same is true of policies. So long as the nation endures, service to it demands conscientious honesty. To do less, be it out of fear or hatred or even something as simple as a desire to conform, is to fail profoundly as an American patriot.

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