While the right tries to define patriotism as blind allegiance to the President and a willingness to see all foreign brown people as "terrorists" who must be exterminated, Jonathan Alter in Newsweek offers the ideal tonic:
Britney Spears, best known recently for a lip lock with Madonna, is hardly an authority on the political ramifications of September 11. But Spears has a bankable feel for the popular pulse, and her comments last week reflected a good chunk of public opinion on the subject of patriotism: "I think we should just trust the president in every decision he makes," she told CNN, "and we should just support that, and be faithful in what happens."
MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, most of them Republicans, define themselves politically and define others patriotically by adherence to that simple Spears standard. The Bush White House will do everything it can to identify those voters; play to their sometimes sublimated emotions of fidelity and fear, and turn the first Tuesday in November 2004 into a referendum on the second Tuesday in September 2001. Stay Proud. Stay Safe. Vote Bush.
But now a hard-nosed Democratic critique has emerged, reflected in Howard Dean"s surprising success and Al Franken"s runaway best seller that documents lies told by Bush and other conservatives. This view is a twist on Bush"s taunt to the terrorists, "Bring "em on." These Democrats are essentially saying to him: "Go ahead, make ads wearing that flight suit on the aircraft carrier; visit Ground Zero with a bullhorn during the GOP convention next year in New York; try to "Dukakisize" the Democratic nominee as an unpatriotic weenie. This time, it ain"t working." And, by the way, "We told you so on the failure of your go-it-alone arrogance abroad and your job-killing, feed-the-rich economy at home."
Between blind loyalty and blind defiance sit most Americans, still rubbing their eyes in amazement at how much has changed in only two years. In the wrenching aftermath of September 11, the American flag became a security blanket to warm a wounded nation: Stars and Stripes sprouted in even the most left-wing lapels and the French daily, Le Monde, ran a banner headline: WE ARE ALL AMERICANS NOW.
But soon patriotism moved from a comfort to a cudgel. An impulse that had briefly united now often divided, as it did in the past. At the turn of the last century, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), who was deemed a traitor for opposing U.S. policy in the Philippines, derided what he called "monarchical patriotism." The old royal idea that "the king can do no wrong," Clemens reported with disgust, had been changed to "our country, right or wrong."
Liberals are at a natural disadvantage on this terrain, which is why many Democrats are leery of any presidential candidate who didn"t serve in the military. There"s a stubborn double standard at work. The same conservatives who attacked President Clinton"s policy after war began in Kosovo in 1999 felt it was traitorously out of bounds for Sen. Tom Daschle to offer mild criticism of Bush during the Iraq war.
Nowadays, military service is no guaranteed defense against this bully patriotism, even when it"s wielded by politicians and blowhard pundits who themselves avoided Vietnam. In 2002, after blocking the creation of a Department of Homeland Security for months, Republicans flip-flopped, then smeared Sen. Max Cleland as unpatriotic for a position they themselves had just recently taken. Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple-amputee, lost his re-election bid in Georgia to Saxby Chambliss, who skipped service. Was this (and Bush"s tarring of Vietnam POW John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary) a preview of 2004? Considering the sniping from White House officials that critics who preferred embargoing Iraq to invading it were "pacifists," the answer is almost certainly yes.