American Patriotism

The Random House dictionary defines a patriot as one who “defends his or her country and its interests,” but it also regards a patriot as a “defender, esp. of individual rights, against presumed interference by the federal government.”

Our country today is troubled not only with another war abroad, but with a war of words at home. On one side are those who defend the present government without question. They are angered by those on the other side, who speak out against policies and decisions made by those in power today. Both sides claim patriotism, but to what? Could it be that our differing definitions of ‘patriotism’ could be undermining the stability of the very country we are all claim to be defending? Lao Tzu wrote in his Tao Te Ching, “When the country falls into chaos, patriotism is born.” Has it gotten that bad already?

The Revolutionary War was fought by so-called ‘patriots’ – those who sought freedom from a government they didn’t agree with. Did Britain consider them to be patriots? In a sense these ‘patriots’ were actually rebels, engaged in what they considered to be a righteous rebellion against tyranny. Adlai Stevenson said, “Do not… regard the critics as questionable patriots. What were Washington and Jefferson and Adams but profound critics of the colonial status quo?”

And what issues did our founding fathers have with this ‘tyrannical’ rule of the time? Our forefathers sought freedom from taxation without representation; they sought religious freedom; they sought freedom of speech and expression; they sought self-rule. The resulting Declaration of Independence and Constitution attempted to provide a satisfactory alternative to rule by monarchy.

Especially since 9/11, many argue that some of these freedoms have been curtailed, ironically by the USA Patriot Act, and other acts of government in which the general population had no say. Was it done, as they say, to protect our freedom? I suppose, as I believe Donald Rumsfeld once said, that we can have freedom or security, but not both. Of course now we are at war as well, and many cry out in against those who choose not to support our government in this effort, claiming such people are un-patriotic.

I support our troops without question. Those men and women didn’t start the war, they are just doing their duty, which happens to be following orders – many times to the death. I applaud these people for their fortitude and stamina in this seemingly unending war against terrorism. Regardless of the arguments some make about Iraq not having WMDs, or that Iraq didn’t destroy the WTC, or that war is a means to profit for the elite – these men and women in uniform aren’t to blame and should have our gratitude and respect.

But to call someone un-patriotic for questioning their government? Of course the government itself feels slighted, so as Henry Steele Commager said, “Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive.” But going back again to the days of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, certainly these men would support the right to speak out. They hoped the republic they created would provide a balance between the rulers and the ruled. They provided the right to free speech and to bear arms – not so people could run around yelling and killing each other, but so they could defend themselves from a dishonest government if need be. Certainly the citizenry will not always agree on whether this is the case – but don’t we have the right to disagree? Shouldn’t we at the very least respect each other’s opinion, and take the time to listen to each other? Isn’t that really what it means to be an American?

If you research famous quotes on patriotism the result is surprising. Those who refuse to question the policies of our government might be advised to reread a little history. It’s our job as patriots! I saw a bumper sticker once which said, “Sometimes a patriot needs to defend his country against its government.” And along those lines many famous people have spoken out over the years.

From Teddy Roosevelt, “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.” (1918)

From Mark Twain: “The government is merely a servant — merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them.”

From James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

From Edward R. Murrow: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

To be loyal to America doesn’t mean to sit back and allow one administration or another the power to make decisions without debate or dissent. To be a loyal American is to stand up for our original freedoms, to stand up as our forefathers did, as ‘rebellious patriots’, and fight for the rights that made our country great – particularly the right to disagree, without repercussion. This is the heart and soul of America, and when that is gone, then we become Americans in name only. Some argue, this has already happened, but as long as this article remains posted we still have a chance.

Someday soon, I fear, being an “American” could become a thing of the past, in name as well. As Ronald Reagan famously said in 1985, “I couldn’t help but say to [Mr. Gorbachev], just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from another planet. [We’d] find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this earth together.” If we are truly on the road to world government, as many believe, we as Americans will have a lot more to fight for someday. If our sovereignty is ever threatened, I can only hope that all Americans – those on both sides of the ‘patriot’ argument today – will come together to defend her from those who seek ultimate power. As Daniel Webster said in 1850, “I was born an American; I will live an American; I shall die an American!”