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True patriotism is commitment to nation’s ideals

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: June 4, 2008 1:42 a.m.
Updated: August 5, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Patriotism. Nationalism. Militarism. Fascism.

It's a slippery slope from the "P" at the start of patriotism to the "m" at the end of fascism. But slip-sliding away we've been, and it's strange to think we've welcomed our slide from liberty with our very own votes. Artifacts of liberty's decline abound, from "Patriot Acts" violating privacies to news of American military "prison ships" secretly detaining "war on terror" prisoners indefinitely, without trial. All the while, public support for these erosions of liberty is drummed up in a fervor of "Patriotism."

This past Memorial Day, Carrie, Sandy and I had breakfast at a coffee shop out of town. During the course of our meal, we witnessed a "patriotic" American demonstrate in microcosm our national confusion between patriotism and its evil cousins, nationalism, militarism and fascism.

Just as our food was served, a loud voice boomed from deep within the restaurant, startling the patrons. "I've owned this restaurant for over seven years ... and as regular customers know, each Sunday I always have our customers stand and sing, ‘God Bless America.'"

A palpable discomfort rose through the room as customers considered the prospect of being told what to do. I weighed the scene unfolding before us. Indeed, the man with the booming voice owned the restaurant. Certainly, it was his right to ask us to do most anything legal in his own house. And, for believers, "God Bless America" is a wonderful and inspiring national anthem. Our emotions balanced between the discomfort of the unexpected request and our recognition that singing, "God Bless America" on Sundays, especially on Memorial Day, was actually a wonderful and thoughtful thing to do.

But then the loud voice lowered the boom - and slipped from patriotism to fascism-lite. "And although I won't throw you out if you refuse to stand and sing, I can't guarantee that the guy sitting next to you won't!" We were no longer being asked to sing, "God Bless America" - we were threatened and compelled to stand and sing.

The booming voice continued, exhorting gratitude, debt and respect to all those who have served America by fighting for our freedom and safety. Again, proper traits: gratitude and respect. But the booming voice again shot past the mark, slipping into nationalism and militarism. "We must always support America's battles abroad - because our men are fighting and dying for the greatest nation on earth. We dishonor soldiers' sacrifice if we don't support the wars in which they sacrifice and die."

At this point, my own inner voice interceded, mentally countering that supporting our soldiers is very different than using their deaths as the rationale for more war and dying. To oblige war because we mustn't suffer our soldiers' knowledge of public disapproval of war policy is to give free license to an overt and reckless militarization of America. Under such twisted "patriotic" logic, we're compelled to support war adventurism anytime and anyplace. Plainly, not the stuff of liberty and justice.

What's proper
It turned out the restaurant's CD player was broken that Sunday, so the booming voice backed off the heavy-handed compelled singing. Instead, he asked us to honor this Memorial Day by bowing our heads and paying our own quiet respect and honor to our veterans. In this, the voice hit the mark right on. It's absolutely proper on Memorial Day to pause the parties, pause the barbecues and stop and thank and memorialize those who have sacrificed so much for our sake.

We finished up our meal and quickly left, perplexed from the back and forth between thoughtful memorials and demands for conformity and militancy. The perplexity is America's current distortion of the meaning of "patriotism." Most Americans feel a natural desire to be and act "patriotic." We want to demonstrate our love our country by honoring veterans, upholding laws and contributing to America's common good. But "patriotism" has become a loaded word - full of emotion and potential for manipulation of America's citizenry. Our desire to support country is abused to manipulate acceptance of any of the country's actions - be they good or evil. Indeed, some Americans identify "patriotism" with the oft-heard phrase, "My country - right or wrong."

For those, "patriotism" has come to mean compliance with administration politics and policy, instead of support of American principles and ethics. This is terribly confused. The construct, "My country - right or wrong" is far, far removed from the Bill of Rights.

"Patriotism" properly denotes positive and supportive attitudes to the "fatherland" (Latin, patria). America, founded on ethical principles rather than race or boundaries, thus requires a type of "patriotism" which advances its ethics of individual liberty, freedom and justice. We slip from healthy American patriotism to a perverse nationalism when we're coerced to support policy over American principle. "National unity at war time" has been the effective call for five years, prying us from principles of liberty and instead binding us to a single administration's damaging policies. But supporting whatever we're doing because it's America that's doing it doesn't make us right and it doesn't make us patriots. It makes us nationalists and renders us vulnerable to tyranny against true American principles.

Confused patriots
Confused patriots argue that: "Supporting America mandates supporting the war." As such patriotism devolves to nationalism, militarism worms its way into our national makeup. We're manipulated and herded into a unified conviction that our nation is under constant threat; that we must maintain a strong military capability - and we must use it aggressively to defend and promote national interests. We come to identify military might with ethical right. We spend ever-greater portions of our wealth on military. Once we as a voting majority believe that "might is right" we can be certain we've long wandered from the original American ideal of the supremacy of individual liberty, justice and freedom. And fascism, at least the coercive, manipulative elements of it, knocks at our doors in slanderous political campaigning, in secret laws, in tortuous prisons - and even in veiled threats mandating "patriotic" compliance in coffee shops.

After that uncomfortable scene at breakfast last week, I pondered how best to demonstrate patriotism and just where to pledge my allegiance. As real American patriots, we can't defer to zealous nationalists, who would have us surrender liberty in favor of administration dictates and the advancing militarism of our country.

So, while it is indeed proper to sing American hymns and bow in memorials, this cannot be enough.

Our most patriotic action as Americans must be to continuously stand to uphold and strengthen justice, freedom and individual liberty. Submission to manipulated and coerced conformance in the name of "patriotism" is an enemy to liberty, and perhaps the greatest threat America faces.

Five years of needlessly tragic war bears this out.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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