Sunday, November 11, 2007

What Does It Mean to Be Patriotic? by Tamim Ansary

Here is an article written by a man with a totally un-American name that I feel describes “Patriotism” and its meaning to a “T”. This description fits not only the United States of America, it fits any country that believes in itself and stands up for there home grown belief… England remember this for your love of Country is as high as ours...God and Country always...

What does it mean to be a patriot?
After the events of September 11, newspapers reported an upsurge of patriotism across the land. Americans put stickers on their car windows reading, "United We Stand" and wore T-shirts with images of the American flag. Even on college campuses, students rallied to express patriotic sentiments about America. Sixties boomers, long accustomed to scoffing at patriotism as "flag-waving," now discovered in themselves a surprising urge to wave flags.
Later, when the war in Iraq began to heat up, many of its supporters upgraded to even bigger flags, while others who opposed the conflict traded theirs for antiwar signs.

Members of both sides describe themselves as patriots. But what exactly is patriotism, anyway?

The dictionary defines it as pride in one's country, an intense love of her, a zealous devotion to her interests. But how many hours a day do any of us spend actively loving our country--and how do we express that love, anyway?

Waving the flag
The most familiar patriotic activity is probably flying or displaying the American flag. And that makes a certain sense. Patriotism and flags are certainly related, through their second cousin--war.
Flags started out as banners held aloft on crowded battlefields by war chiefs (or their aides) to let the common soldiers know where their leader was. The flags showed the soldiers that he was still alive and inspired them to keep fighting.

Even today patriotism tends to surge when the country is in a war or on the verge of fighting one. It has a definite function at such times: to build national strength through solidarity, especially in the face of a common enemy.

Every group, from street-corner gang to nation-state, knows the worth of unified resolve against outside threats. If a bully attacks you and your buddies, you set aside your differences and stand as one; that's a given.

If the bullies single you out for harassment, you expect your buddies to jump in and help you. If your buddies say, "We're not going to side with you blindly, we need more facts, maybe these bullies have a point," you're apt to feel betrayed. You may well feel that true friends help first and ask questions later.

And patriotism, I think, is that normal human sentiment writ large. "I love my country" is a way of saying, "Every American in trouble is my buddy." Flying a flag makes the statement, "Count me in, I'm part of the one big group, and woe to anyone who attacks us." Flags build patriotic unity by making visible our bigness and our oneness.

America's big ideas
But embracing anything blindly always carries risks. The urge to marshal unity can slide into unquestioning obedience: my country right or wrong. Teddy Roosevelt once said, "Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country."
That's where the concept of patriotism gets tricky in a democracy, especially in the United States. Loyalty to this country can't mean loyalty to any particular ethnic, cultural, or political group, and it must go beyond "soil." At its core the United States is not just a patch of land or a group of people, but a set of ideas.

Which ideas?

My list includes at least these four--perhaps you have more:

The rule of law--no one is subject to anyone else's arbitrary whim. Instead, everyone must abide by the same uniform set of publicly posted rules.
Democracy--people get to have a real say in making those rules and in choosing their own leaders.
Freedom--people have the right to pursue their own lives however they see fit, so long as they don't hurt others.
Inclusion--the benefits of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law belong to all American citizens, regardless of how they look, what they believe, or any other arbitrary criteria.
Too many backseat drivers?
Taken seriously, these core principles imply certain duties. The duty to vote, for example. It's not just that we get to vote. If this country belongs to us citizens, none of us is exempt from a responsibility to help run it. Forming opinions and expressing them is not just a right but an obligation.
But wait! Can any nation function with a hundred million backseat drivers telling the leaders how to drive and where to go? Won't that sort of anarchic clamor weaken our unity and erode our resolve? Aren't some rights--to dissent, to demonstrate, to organize political opposition, for example--luxuries we can't afford in times of crisis? Shouldn't we put those bon bons on a shelf to enjoy later, after we've secured an impregnable peace?

Such arguments, I think, mistakenly view our core American freedoms as sources of weakness. History has other lessons on that score. Consider, for example, the case of the ancient Roman Republic and its notoriously contentious government. If strength comes from lockstep efficiency, how did Rome survive for so long?

What Does It Mean to Be Patriotic?
Part 2: The riddle of Rome
In the Roman Republic, power was vested in a senate of several hundred men drawn strictly from the patrician class, the Roman aristocracy. The senators proposed laws and voted them into effect, but they had no real mechanism for closing off debate. Technically, they could bicker forever--and often it seemed that they would.

Any law they did pass could be vetoed instantly, without argument or explanation, by any tribune of the plebes. The tribunes were men elected--but only for one year--by ordinary non-noble Romans, and veto power was their only power.

Instead of one chief executive, Rome had two top dogs, known as consuls. Neither one had official power over the other, and both had to obey the senate. They too held office for only one year. As soon as they stepped down, quite often, the other senators rushed to sue them for the misdeeds of their year in power.

How could people in such a system--a system designed to foster such debate and infighting--ever muster strength for tough, unified action? Surely, any half-smart king with a disciplined army could demolish that house of cards. Right?

Well, plenty of military hotshots tried. Pyrrhus of Macedonia looked like the next Alexander the Great till he landed in Italy. Mithridates of Pontus was sweeping the field till he tried to tackle Rome. Hannibal of Carthage, one of history's top military minds, couldn't beat the clamorous debating club known as the Roman senate.

Why not? Because beating any particular Roman was not the same as beating Rome itself. Somehow, that ramshackle system gave enough citizens enough access to power to inspire in Romans an astounding commitment to their city. Whatever their attitude toward the people they conquered, Romans had among themselves an inclusiveness unrivaled in the ancient world. Rome could therefore reach deep into the pool of its citizenry for the talents it needed to meet any crisis.

That's what gave Rome its edge. And today, the United States has that same edge, only more so.

Where strength comes from
In a radio interview, the late historian Stephen Ambrose suggested that American soldiers proved themselves against Hitler's Nazi troops in World War II precisely because they were nurtured in a democratic society. They had initiative because they grew up believing in the worth and weight of their opinions. They were self-reliant and decisive because they grew up making choices, not taking orders. If the sergeant of an American platoon went down, the corporal stepped up. If the corporal died, someone else took charge. The group could flex as needed and work as one to get the job done--whatever "job" the chaos of battle abruptly flung up.
Further Reading
Ambrose, Stephen. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945. Simon & Schuster, 1998.
If Ambrose was right--if American strength is rooted in our key democratic institutions--then anything we do to strengthen those institutions is a patriotic act. Flags are okay but neither necessary nor sufficient: If one guy flies a flag and his neighbor doesn't, can we assume the first guy to be more patriotic? I think not.
A foe called apathy
To me, participation is the key. It's patriotic to pay attention to how things are going in the country, to seek out good information, to vote, to insist on clean elections, to campaign for issues, to run for office, to raise one's voice. Critics who dwell on ways that America falls short of its ideals are not being un-American. They're doing necessary American work. If they're wrong, their criticism will lose steam--that's the American faith: that truth has power.
Citizens who disagree with elected American leaders shouldn't have to defend their patriotism. The consent of the governed is what gives our leaders strength, and there can be no true consent without latitude for true dissent--"yes" means little if "no" is not an option.

Loyalty to democracy, freedom, rule of law, and inclusion should make us extra vigilant toward apathy. In a story about political attitudes on American college campuses, the Christian Science Monitor quotes student Lisa Tengo, who says, of voting, "It's one of those 'What's the point?' kind of things. I feel like my life would be the same no matter who's in office, so I don't really care." Tengo, the story goes on, has never voted and she "vows" she never will.

Wow. Vows? Zealots for apathy, unite!
But Ms. Tengo is not alone. Almost every national U.S. election since the 1960s has set a record for low voter turnouts. It's not that anyone should be forced to vote. But something is making citizens like Tengo regard participation in normal American political life as futile. That "something" is a common threat, I say, against which we as a nation must unite.

Anyone who takes an active part in fighting that beast is a patriot in my book

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