Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, this year’s election cycle marks the return of frantic Republican flag-waving. It’s the favorite sport of conservatives everywhere – trying to paint themselves as the true patriots while portraying Democrats as unpatriotic or downright un-American.
In 1988, it was Michael Dukakis who was the target when he was branded unpatriotic for vetoing a bill that would have forced children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This time it’s Barack Obama who finds himself in the GOP crosshairs. The logic goes something like this: Obama doesn’t wear a flag pin, he doesn’t put his hand on his heart when he sings the national anthem, his middle name is Hussein, he wants to get out of Iraq, his pastor is critical of the country, and most importantly, the man can’t bowl to save his life. All this adds up to the fact that, obviously, Obama hates America.
I guess the bigger question is what exactly is a patriot? For many Republicans, patriotism has less to do with love of country and more to do with falling in line with the president’s policies, especially when it comes to matters of war and peace. If you dare to question or dissent from the official government line, you’re branded “unpatriotic” or “unAmerican.” Dissent equals disloyalty. In 1918, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, “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.”
Freedom of speech is a great idea – just don’t step over the line.
In the GOP handbook, a true patriot must believe that America is better than every other country in the world. Why do Republicans feel the need to proclaim “We’re Number One” with such fervor? Never mind that the U.S. is demonstrably not number one in a number of areas such as education, health care, and literacy rates; why can’t America be the best country for Americans while allowing that maybe Japan is the best country for Japanese? Sure, America is a superpower and has much influence in the world culturally, politically, and economically. Does that mean we have to play the role of a braggart and lord it over every other nation on the planet? Is it some form of misguided patriotism that makes some people want to thump their chests so insistently?
Perhaps it has to do with how George Bernard Shaw once defined patriotism as “your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” It’s the sort of nationalism disguised as patriotism that leads people to insist that people adhere to superficial symbols of patriotism (flag pins, etc.) as opposed to acting in a patriotic manner.
For some people, patriotism is reduced to that old bumper sticker: Love It or Leave It! Just shut up and don’t ask any questions. Apparently, if you see things in your country that are blatantly wrong (pre-emptive war, torture, etc.) and protest or try to change them, you’re being unpatriotic. But it should be clear that the real patriot is the person who loves his country enough to do everything he can to make it better.
Lee Greenwood sends everyone into a patriotic frenzy when he sings “I’m Proud to Be an American,” but is “proud” really the right word to use? Doesn’t pride have to do with a person’s feeling of self-worth because of some accomplishment? What did most Americans do besides be fortunate enough to be born in the U.S.? Immigrants, who really had to work to become American citizens, perhaps are more entitled to talk about being proud to be an American. Maybe “I’m grateful to be an American” would be a more appropriate way to express one’s feeling of patriotism. It reflects not a sense of superiority but a sense of humbleness; a recognition that we are, indeed, blessed to live in America, and are commited to do all in our power to contribute to its greatness.
Samuel Johnson’s observation that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” has never been truer than today. When Republicans find themselves on the wrong side of the issues, their first impulse is to attack their opponent’s supposed “patriotism.” Hopefully, Americans have matured enough to see through these bogus arguments and recognize that patriots come in both red and blue.