Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On Patriotism

There was a good op/ed piece by Ed Dionne, Jr in the Oregonian today (Tuesday, May 27th) talking about patriotism and how progressives should not abandon this high ground to the conservatives. In particular, he went on at some length about what patriotism is, especially in regard to nationalism or jingoism. 

Just to get our definitions straight, jingoism is defined as aggressive patriotism, particularly in regard to a warlike foreign policy (which could clearly be applied to the Bush administration). Nationalism tends to be a negative term as well, at least when applied to an existing country (or if you are Israel and you are discussing Palestinian nationalism). The key word in the definition I read was "superiority", which also seems to apply to the US at present.

Recently I was at the Charbonneau barbershop listening to a man go on about how people who didn't love America should just leave. By "love" he meant "things are going really well for me and mine right now so don't rock the boat". That's all well and good, but America isn't a static entity. Never has been, and never will be. One of the truly great things about my country is that it does change and adapt as the world changes. No longer are white male landowners the only ones in power, although we seem to be a little slower than most countries in making that change - in fact, a considerable percentage of Americans own land. Many immigrants came to this country specifically so that they *could* own land, when it wasn't possible back in their country of origin - it was a major element of the immigration waves of the 1800's, which of course were designed to put bodies in the newly expanding West as the result of land purchases or land taken in the Mexican American War. 

Other changes are equally sweeping - civil rights regardless of your race or sex (although we haven't quite gotten around to guaranteeing the latter, shamefully), social safety nets, transportation and communication networks, major scientific undertakings. Even when the underlying motivations for things like the Apollo moon landings (we can't let the Russians take over outer space!) are antagonistic, the results (imagine life without a microwave oven) are generally beneficial to us as a whole. 

The key issue here is that these were all changes. Often those changes were fought tooth and nail by those who wanted to keep the status quo for selfish reasons, even if those who fought for the changes had the same motives. Trolley cars were eliminated by the rubber and gasoline companies who wanted people in cars, not mass transit. Clearly a change that has had mixed results, but we adapt and change to change itself.

Even the very definition of what America is changes as you move from neighborhood to neighborhood. I live in one of the most progressive parts of the US, a state that hasn't voted Republican for president since Reagan, yet my neighbors who wave the flag are all conservatives, rich, and white. Clearly they want nothing to change except for the Democrats to all die horribly and at once. Many of them defend torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, invading other countries if we disagree with them, and think Bill O'Reilly is a smart guy (which he probably is - he's made a career out of screaming over the top of anyone he disagrees with, which has been very effective if not terribly useful). Drive ten miles up the road to my old neighborhood, Multnomah Village, and you'd see people who throw up in their mouths at the idea of *any* conservative having a voice in power.

True patriotism is not either of these things. True patriotism is being able to look at all arguments and come up with a solution that will make life better for all Americans, not just the ones who look like you or go to your church. True patriotism is taking a hard, honest look at what our country does in our name and be willing to stand up in a hostile crowd and say that we need change because we're better than what our acts say we are. 

It is not wearing flag pins, it is not waving the flag on holidays (or all year, as many of my neighbors do). It is definitely not claiming that if you don't like it, move to Cuba. If you don't like it, think about why you don't like it, why things are the way they are, find a solution, and work to see it implemented. Perhaps that's an engineer's view of the world, but then we build the roads and buildings and bridges and Internet and airplanes and cars. We look at the world in what should be a neutral and objective way, find compromises where necessary, make design trade offs, but in the end we get the job done. 

Perhaps we should be electing engineers to run things instead of lawyers. 

Regardless of who the next President is, I am hopeful that we will begin to move away from the attitudes of difference and fear of change and start seriously addressing the myriad crises that loom in our future. Because they will require us to forget our tribal politics and entrenched interests and look at the world differently if we are to survive as a nation and culture, if not as a species. We can't consume the world's resources at our current rate if everyone does it, so it's time to start learning to make do with less. It's time to realize that the choices we make as a nation affect the entire world, and perhaps we should be making those choices as if we lived on a planet that we're stuck on. 

Perhaps patriotism should start to move past our national boundaries and apply to our world and our species and even life in general. Because wearing a flag pin will mean nothing to your children, or your grandchildren, if they're living in caves and wearing rat skins. Patriotism is really about thinking and moving and doing in arenas beyond the self, and the sooner we wake up and realize that patriotism has been a tool to control the population rather than improve life, the sooner we can start making a future for our kids instead of making things worse.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Mega-dittos, Doug! Nyuk.

Your aside reminded me of my grandfather's judgment that Herbert Hoover was a very good engineer, but a very poor president...

I'm of a mind lately that who we elect is less important than what we actively do. Things we do include organizing like-minded patriots to insist that those we elect do things that support the common good rather than answer to those interests that fill their campaign coffers.

This country is in for some very hard times in the years ahead. We will discover together who has the patriotism (whether as a global or American citizen)to sacrifice to turn things around.