Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Letter From An Agitator

This letter made it into the Ann Arbor News. It's from one of The Liberty St. Agitators.
In an era of polarized American politics, what defines a patriot?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Who are the patriots?

It is 1937, four years after Adolf Hitler became Germany's chancellor, four years before the U.S. and Germany were at war. American flags on standards surround the podium, flanked by swastika pennants. Every person in the room is in uniform, standing at rigid attention. Opening the session, they earnestly recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag ... the American flag. It is a meeting of the German American Bund, an organization of Americans in America dedicated to close affiliation of the U.S. with Nazi Germany. They consider themselves patriots.

What is patriotism? Is it loyalty to one's countryfolk? Reverence for traditional precepts? Voluntary public service? Personal or financial sacrifice for the nation? Spiritual commitment? Political party affiliation? Ostentatious flag allegiance? Obedience to government? Willingness to lie to protect a vice president from prosecution, to cheat, steal, spy upon, sabotage or subvert foreign governments, assassinate their leaders, or destroy property as an undercover federal agent?

Is it "the last refuge of scoundrels''? "My country, right or wrong''? The cement by which nations endure? The soldier's license to kill? The censor's warrant to silence dissent? The police state's excuse to wiretap? The leverage presidents use to pry war funding from Congress? The imperial rationale to conquer and oppress?

In the past, someone has interpreted patriotism as each of these alternatives. Perhaps no other vehicle of human expression enables otherwise mature adults to work such tragic mischief, to assert preposterous values, talk tribal nonsense, commit heinous acts, inspire senseless sacrifice. At best, it joins religion and vengeance for this distinction, rivaling religion for sanctimony and vengeance for fanaticism.

Nicolas Chauvin, a soldier in Napoleon's army, is the prototype of "excessive and unreasonable nationalism mingled with xenophobia,'' the dictionary definition of chauvinism. Aggressive, bellicose chauvinists are dubbed "jingoists.'' Can we recognize such people inside the Beltway today?

Nathan Hale symbolizes American patriotism, along with celebrated war heroes. At the opposite pole is... Benedict Arnold, classic anti-patriot, notorious traitor.
Those who take up arms against the nation or "give aid and comfort'' to its enemies can be indicted for treason.
The aftermath of World War II spawned an atmosphere of distrust in Washington. Cold War politics conjured a new vision of treachery. Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy rose on a wave of ideological orthodoxy. Their victims were labeled "communist,'' "socialist,'' "fellow traveler,'' "pinko.'' Blacklists banned prominent national figures from employment. Public employees,
including schoolteachers, were required to sign loyalty oaths. Whistleblowers today face ominous echoes of that era.

Polarized politics evokes strong rhetoric. Superpatriot warmongers have no mental space for "loyal opposition.''
A president charges that citizens who protest against, or legislators who seek to deny funding for, the Iraq war do not "support the troops.'' Is it more patriotic to sustain, or to oppose, the exposure of Americans occupying embattled Iraq? Does keeping forces there weaken our nation, diminish homeland security? Is control of Iraqi oil a wise trade-off for war debt at the mercy of China?

Vietnam War protesters eventually prevailed over leaders who had sustained that war, although many voices impugned their patriotism at the time. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has since acknowledged mistaken leadership. Who were the real patriots? Is anyone who acts in well-informed good faith, having the nation's best interest at heart, a patriot? Can democracy function in the turmoil of wartime if government will not hear dissent?

Would it ever be fitting to condemn an American president for being unpatriotic? Or does the president so personify the state that his whims define patriot and traitor? A royal prerogative? Imperial divinity? What if his actions "give aid and comfort'' to Osama bin Laden?

When courts, ultimate arbiters of treason, are not invoked, perhaps contentious times leave rhetorical definition of "patriot'' and "traitor'' in limbo, or the mind of each beholder.

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