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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Special July Fourth Commentary: Taking Back the Concept of Patriotism

Liberals have allowed conservatives to both steal and co-opt the concept of patriotism over the years. The conception of patriotism put forth by some contemporary conservatives seems at times to be a very narrow form of love for country embodied by the slogan: "my country right or wrong." And symbolized by unquestioned loyalty and such overt acts such as flying the flag or draping oneself in the national colors. We have the flag burning amendment and yellow ribbons to support not just the troops, but the war itself.

The liberal opposition to war and refusal to be caught up in the superficial symbolism have caused them to be labeled unpatriotic. I would however argue that an adherence to empty symbols is not patriotism, rather it is jingoism.

Liberals need to press harder on conservatives on this point because true patriotism is not the adherence to blanket symbolism and support, but rather love of country that should be embodied by the notion of the very principles on which we have been founded.

One does not support our troops by supporting a war that is killing and maiming them in vast numbers. In fact, the continued support of this destructive war undermines the troops rather than supports them. I support our troops by wanting every single one of them out of Iraq. I support our troops by wanting to provide them with jobs, job training, financial security, and good medical coverage when they come home. I support our troops by never wanting to see another Veteran on a street corner begging for money. And I support our troops by never wanting to see another one come home dead or severely injured.

I do not believe that my country is always right. Rather I hold my country to higher standards--the standards embodied in our foundations of social justice, liberty, freedom, and the due process of law. I oppose acts in this nation that tear away at the fabric of freedom and liberty. I oppose acts that strip away the protections of due process of law. Those who hide behind slogans as they destroy our nation's principles are not patriots, but rather traitors and cowards.

Jefferson tells us,
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Franklin warns us,
"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security."
Why are conservatives so afraid of dissent? Our nation was founded on dissent. Our founding fathers believed in dissent with every bone of their body. The hallmark of freedom is the freedom of speech.

This freedom is embodied within our nation's first amendment:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Within the first amendment we have the right to free speech, the right to a free press, and the right to protest and dissent against the government. The founders knew full well that without the right to dissent, the freedom to speak meant nothing. Freedom is not tested when we all agree on something.

In the movie "The American President," Michael Douglas' character, the President, exemplifies the true meaning of free speech:
"You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating, at the top of his lungs, that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours."
The core the statement is true, as writer Nat Hentoff explained, most Americans are willing to allow free speech only when they agree with what is said. That is not freedom of speech. Are you willing to allow the KKK to march through town in their white robes and hoods and say everything that you oppose with all your heart? Are you willing to allow a man draped in the American flag to proclaim that we need to be a country of white Americans? Those are the tests of freedom.

President Bush frequently talks about the Muslim world hating our freedom, but in many ways, I think the President doesn't know what our freedom is. He curtails it every step he gets. When people complain about the war, they are labeled as unpatriotic, told that they are not supporting our troops, and at times told that they are providing aid and comfort to the enemy. The latter is a charge of treason--dissent has become not just un-American but treasonous.

I would argue that dissent is our strength not our weakness. It is what holds us accountable. It is what forces us to seek to attain a higher standard. Criticism and dissent force the other side to be more careful, to do a better job. And they hold us accountable when we make errors. Without dissent, there can be no accountability.

Finally on this Fourth of July, I will take issue with another popular myth, that the left "hates" America. I love my country. They misinterpret criticism for hate and blind obedience for love. I love my country, like people love their children. People love their children no matter what they do. However, they do not stand by and approve of everything their children do for the sake of love. To do that would be bad parenting. To do that for a country would be a bad citizen and a bad voter.

Instead people criticize, punish, and teach their children how to properly conduct themselves in the world. When they err, they get punished and reprimanded. They are instilled with values and when they transgress against those values they are admonished and scorned. Parents do not stand idly by and allow their children to misbehave or to undermine their values. Nor should citizens of a nation stand by and watch their nation undermine their values.

But more than that, I hold my country to a higher standard than I hold others. I hold my nation to the due process of the law even as others summarily execute their criminals. I hold my nation to the doctrines of the Geneva Convention, even as the enemy tortures, maims, and kills its prisoners of war and civilians with malice. I hold my nation to be above such tactics as torture, recognizing full well that many others will not. And I hold my nation to be an agent of peace even in the time of war.

I do these things not because I hate America, but because I believe in America and American values. I hold these values and principles above the temporary expediency of security. And because I wish to adhere to those values, I will criticize my nation even in the time of war. For just as free speech does not exist without dissent, neither does patriotism exist without war protests and marches.

This is Independence Day, and it is time for a moment of reflection. But we should remember today above all else the values under which this nation was founded. The values of dissent and freedom. Of liberty AND justice. Of the rule of law over the rule of the mob. Of the ideal that all people were created equal. Of the ideal that we can rise up and transcend our limited condition. And finally of our commitment to peace and social justice. All of these are the embodiments of patriotism and those who threaten them are not patriots, they are merely jingoists.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting