The past two years have been rough on my opinion of patriotism. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the citizenship, the plush public education and the right to dissent without voting, but my zealous and unconditional support of the government wanes by the day. I’ve always noticed that there are dozens of definitions of patriotism – most of which are usually harmless. For many Americans, this usually entails mouthing the words to the national anthem, or shooting off illegal fireworks on the Fourth of July. Hit a deer and make sausage. Drink a Schlitz on your porch. Eat a hot dog with cheese inside. Mmmm. Patriotism tastes good.
Patriotism is easy: It usually boils down to just arrogance and/or ignorance. Worse, it can be dangerous and has always been a tool available to those wishing to manipulate public opinion. In the words of Hermann Goering, famed Nazi henchman: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
Not in this country you say? Take a look around. Pick up a paper, and you’re sure to find a letter or article condemning those who dare to remain critical of the president. At a recent college graduation ceremony, Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges was booed off the stage for criticizing the government. When Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle questioned the leadership of President Bush on the eve of the impending Iraq War, Republicans like House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) labeled his actions as unpatriotic and irresponsible. Media sources like The Wall Street Journal urged Daschle to “put aside partisanship for at least a few days.” From “orange alerts” to the infamous “Axis of Evil,” we’re being fed a daily dose of fear that in many ways is controlling the public debate.
What the hell has happened to us? Have we all simply forgotten what free speech is all about, or have those planes done the damage al-Qaida intended? Now that we’ve crammed decades’ worth of “God Bless America” into a two-year bender, it’s understandable that hearing an ounce of criticism might be hard to handle. As noble and as righteous as we’d all like to be, the fact remains: The United States government leaves a lot to be desired. We don’t always do the right thing, and we aren’t always on the right side of the feud. Someone has got to be the one to say it when we’re wrong, and those people are being silenced daily in the name of patriotism.
This crisis is not our cue to stop speaking out. In fact, if this nation is truly great, there is no situation where we must curb our criticism. It is entirely possible to remain supportive of our troops overseas, while remaining vocally critical of their deployment. Certainly there is a desire to maintain the appearance of a united front against our enemies, but this cannot come at the expense of the free exchange of ideas and opinions. Indeed, Daschle’s words meant something very different for me. They embody the only part of this nation worth fighting for and the only thing worth dying for – something to remember this Memorial Day. Love your country. Be proud of it. But do it bearing in mind the real reasons why the United States is so wonderful: free speech and the men and women who have died defending it.
Democracy is never easy. It requires the tolerance of those who would spend their lives in support of that which you have spent yours opposing. Insofar as this great nation is concerned, that is true patriotism. Those willing to cast aside the liberals, the anti-war celebrities, the tree huggers and the radicals have given up. They are the unpatriotic, standing in opposition to everything worth fighting for.
Richard Kelsey, U.S. Navy
Robert Adams, U.S. Army
Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.