Politics Holds Our Patriotism Hostage
Patriotism is the love of one’s country, not a shield from criticism and self-reflection
What are we to do when our feelings of love and devotion we have for our country are twisted and used as weapons? It seems appropriate, given May 1st is Loyalty Day, to reflect on the loyalty we feel for (or feel we owe to) our country, and what role patriotism, politics, and their intertwining have come to occupy in our public lives.
Loyalty to America is different than it is for other countries, at least ideally. For many people their loyalty and love is to their homeland, the world both physical and social where they reside. America, at least to me, has never been quite so simple. America is founded on a set of principles, a set of values we are not born into, a way of life that is open to all who chose to join. Our oaths of loyalty are not to peoples or parties, but to a document. In this country we have a unique opportunity as our patriotism is more than merely location, tribal, or ethnic based.
The above image has always spoken to me, an ever-present reminder of patriotism used as a weapon to stifle dissent. The civil rights lawyer in the above photo is not the only American to receive such treatment. I still know many who consider those who protested against the Vietnam War as traitors and Un-American. No lengthy op-ed can come close to displaying the use politicized patriotism against our fellow citizens as this picture and that phrase ‘Un-American.’ Un-American, that’s a word that has been thrown around a lot in the last 16 years, a certain view of patriotism that values displays of loyalty and justifies extreme measures. What has happened to the concepts of loyal opposition and patriotic dissent? It seems as if we woke up one day and began to value these less and less.
Nationalism is a view of politics that is us vs. them, our country vs. your country, our homeland vs. your homeland. Patriotism, or at least what patriotism can aspire to be, is denigrated when forced into such a framework. A love of ones country and participation in something greater than ourselves chafes when restrictive and tribal bonds are placed upon it. Our loyalty to our country has been corrupted by fear and demands for conformity and demonstrations of loyalty. Loyalty Day began as a 1921 response to the First Red Scare, birthed in fear and consecrated in suffering. The Detroit News, in 1920, commented on these acts:
Nearly 400 men, citizens and aliens are free again after being confined because their peaceful assemblage, guaranteed by the Constitution, led the Department of Justice to suspect that their beliefs, also protected under the Constitution, were inimical to the peace and safety of 110,000,000 people. As for those Detroiters who may sometime have read the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, or remembered the proud boast that this was the land of freedom for exiles from autocratic Europe, a revulsion silent, but none the less deep-seated and stern, has come.
This new love of ours for our homeland brings with it a fear based emphasis on military, public displays of patriotism, and exclusion. Not flying flags or serving in the military have become “downright un-american” and tantamount to betrayal of this country. Robert A. Heinlein (Starship Troopers) eviscerates this idea being espoused by many of our fellow Americans that military “service guarantees citizenship” or to not support our military is basically treason. The displays of flags and other patriotic gestures are now often used as political weapons to direct public anger against various groups and individuals. The demand for such gestures has become so great that the Pentagon used millions in taxpayer dollars in what amounted to displays of “paid patriotism” to boost recruitment. These empty, militant gestures should concern any of us whose love for this country is not based solely on fear.
When did the military and the police become touted as the most patriotic forms of service? When did being a teacher, fireman, civil servant, social worker, priest, volunteer, NGO worker, or public defender become no longer respected as forms of service? In all these cases, especially when it comes to military and the police, serving your country or your community is what makes these worthwhile. Unfortunately, it seems these days we only value service as patriotic service if it is paired with the application of force or in the service of security. Security is important, but we demean our country and ourselves if being safe trumps any other consideration.
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
As citizens in a democracy we shoulder the burden of being responsible for creating the laws by which we govern ourselves. Our public lives are a constant balance between respect for the law and demands that our laws live up to the values they claim to represent. It is here that the practice of loyal opposition and dissent are critical. We must ask that just as we are loyal to our country and each other, so too must that country be loyal to it’s principles. When the veterans showed up at Standing Rock last year to stand with their Native Americans brothers, one of them spoke on this demand:
“Well, here we are now. Let me help my brothers and sisters. That was our job in the military, too: to try to do things that are right.”
By accepting a view of the country that demands and emphasizes a certain standard for our laws and actions, we can avoid the the corrupting intrusion of us vs. them into the foundations of our patriotism. When we politicize patriotism, the first target is always those who disagree. We, both at home and abroad, aspire to more, not to demean others, but to encourage us to rise together. On this loyalty day, let us be clear on what we are being loyal too.