Saturday, July 5, 2008

Thinking about patriotism

Famously, British writer Samuel Johnson once said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," and American writer and cynic Ambrose Bierce followed up on the subject with, "I beg to submit that it is the first."

Last night, as my attempts to fall asleep were repeatedly interrupted by fireworks being shot off on Bennington Street (I wasn't upset; after all, it was the 4th), I was thinking about the how the term "patriotism" is regarded by most Americans. Unfortunately, many have come to conflate meaningless gestures with this principle.

If some enjoy flying an American flag or wearing one on a lapel or slapping a yellow-ribbon bumper sticker on a car or even saying the Pledge of Allegiance, that's fine, but it's not patriotism. Likewise, it's ridiculous that our presidential candidates feel the need to appear on stages with umpteen flags behind them, as though more stars and stripes means more love of country.

It's also nonsensical -- and outrageous -- that any American should shout another down by saying that he or she isn't patriotic. The "love it or leave it" argument is infantile and irrational. Nothing would ever be improved if that idea were embraced by everyone.

In fact, those who are really patriotic, I think, are people who are constantly questioning the policies and actions of their government and their fellow citizens. The most patriotic path one can follow, as far as I am concerned, is to keep oneself up to date as to what is going on in the country and the world -- to read, listen, watch, discuss and think about public policy, foreign affairs, politics and the actions of local, state and federal governments -- and to advocate for what one believes is right.

I think that Theodore Roosevelt had the same thing in mind when he said, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."


Eastie Girl said...

Hi Jimbo,
It's been a while since I've had a moment to sit and post, not that you're topics haven't been compelling. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Some of your topics have been so thought provoking that I have often found myself faced with one of two issues:

1) I have such a strong opinion that I could go on for pages and pages while losing track of time in the process.

2) I find that although I have an opinion and would like to contribute, the thought of expending precious time and energy and putting myself out there, only to be chided for not being a subject matter expert, well it diminishes my perception of what value add my commentary could bring to the topic.

Why post now you might be asking? I'm posting because although I have found myself in agreement with your positions on more occasions than not. Despite the seeming futility of blogging at nearly midnight to an audience of God knows who, I feel the need to safeguard a ritual that is the cornerstone, springboard and foundation of patriotism for a lot folks.

I may not be a history scholar or a civics expert, but as a mother, one of the basic lessons I have been able to share with my child and my family is the right and priviledge that has been afforded to us to wave our flag or slap one on our lapel or slap a yellow sticker on our car or say the pledge of allegiance.

Perhaps it has become passe grandstanding to you, however I remember that the red stripes on the American flag symbolize the blood that was shed for our freedom. I know that each of the stars on the flag stand for each of the states of this great union that has the ability to live in freedom and peace. I know that the bumper stickers symbolize the men and women that serve our country every day and night far away from our shores. And when I rolled over on Friday night and lay awake listening to the sounds of the fireworks being shot off by overzealous revelers in my neighborhood, I thought how grateful I was to know that it was just the sound of fireworks, and not the sound of the Godforsaken explosions that keep our service men and women awake at night - or worse.

So, I'm writing to say that flag waving IS patriotic. I'm writing to say that the more stars and stripes, the better. It's not the epitomy of patriotism. That work is being done by our service men and women. But it is a jumping off point and something we can all get behind.

Although I would agree with your inference that ones patriotism should not be solely defined by the number of flags they wave or pose with - and that folks should not expect to be shouted down or deemed unpatriotic because they do not display flags and/or do not recite the pledge of allegiance, you must admit that there are folks out there who flaunt their lack of traditional patriotic obserevance (my definition not yours) in order to stir up controversy.

Don't you think that the energy of those folks would be more wisely utilized elsewhere instead of trying to remove the Pledge of Allegiance from schools or the word "God" from money?

Jimbo said...

Thank you, Eastie Girl, for your honest and intelligent comments. I agree with much of what you say, but I wish we could get past the idea that a flag pin or a bumper sticker are stand-ins for being active, engaged citizens. And I wish we could agree that dissent is patriotic.