Sunday, July 7, 2019

Thoughts on American Patriotism

A friend and colleague has challenged me to write up something about patriotism.  My usual starting point for this sort of musing is the definition of the key word - patriotism - "Patriotism or national pride is the feeling of love, devotion and sense of attachment to a homeland and alliance with other citizens who share the same sentiment."  I make no claims to deep or exceptional insight.  These are just my thoughts at the moment.

Let there be no doubt or confusion - I love my native land.  It's a nation with much natural beauty, dramatic weather, large amounts of natural resources, and (perhaps most important) a set of principles that are inspirational and form the basis for the Constitution.  This lays down the rules for a government that's intended to reward individual initiative so that, by hard work and creative insight, anyone can achieve their dreams here.  Pecuniary rewards and a successful career are not guaranteed to anyone.  Equal opportunity for all, but the outcomes of any efforts are not determined in advance.

The principles of equal treatment under the law, and freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and gender have not consistently been followed by our elected officials, right from the very beginning, including those considered to be founders of our nation.  That even the founders have not lived up to the noble words in our national documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) says that we as a nation still suffer from injustice and discrimination that are direct violations of those principles.  We have a long history of genocidal tactics against the indigenous people who, after all, were the very first Americans.  We have created "legal" exemptions from some of the laws that forbid unequal treatment of minorities and the world observes our hypocrisy as we fail to live up to our noble principles, despite the claims of "American Exceptionalism" by some Americans.

When the USA was founded, it was recognized that the founders were conducting an experiment, in which the Constitution lays out government procedures among the three branches of government envisioned by the founders and promises the existence of many important freedoms.  It is often referred to as "a grand experiment" which no major nation before us had ever tried.  Freedom and equality are important first principles.  I have long been pleased, and a bit proud, to have been born within this experiment and its continuance is important to me.  

The fact that we're not perfect at following the very concepts we claim to hold dear means that any objective review of our behavior must include a recognition that our national, state, and local governments have failed to observe the rules as documented in the Constitution.  We need to "own" our misdeeds as a nation and seek to learn from our mistakes and seek to prevent further violations of our national principles.  I subscribe totally to the notion that while I love my native land, I often disagree (sometimes  strongly) with the behavior of our government.  Even Abraham Lincoln used the excuse of the Civil War to suspend use of the writ of Habeas Corpus - a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person's release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt sanctioned the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

As we saw in the Nixon era, our government can run off the rails for Constitutional democracy into corruption and evil.  Many in our nation are actually opposed to freedom and liberty for all Americans - they are bigots who consider those who are different from them to be somehow unworthy of the support offered by our governments.  Such attitudes often come wrapped in the Bible and the flag, where the adherents to injustice see themselves as patriots as they seek to abrogate the very principles that have made our nation so successful,

While I was in graduate school, I was drafted to serve in the Army.  I had already been reading of the history of Vietnam and I learned they had a long history of stubborn resistance to those who would occupy their lands.  Evidently, the government of America during the Presidencies of JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon felt we could just brush aside any interference from the Communists leading the revolt against the puppet government of South Vietnam.  Apparently, our government felt they could succeed where previous invaders of Vietnam (including the French) failed.  I had a dilemma:  I was being ordered to become part of a war effort that I opposed.  My choices were: 

1. refuse being drafted and go to jail,
2. escape to Canada, or
3. accept the order and go serve. 

As I saw it at the time,  the first two options would mean I would probably never have the career I desperately wanted.  I had to go serve, on that basis, and that's what I did.  I continue to have mixed feelings about my service - during my 11 months in Phu Bai, South Vietnam I never was in any combat, so my good assignment left me free of nightmares, PTSD, and all the ravages of being in combat.  However little I contributed to the war effort, I never made a public stand against the war.  I just wanted to survive it and get back to the USA in one piece.  I'm not necessary proud of my service, but when my nation called, I went and served despite my misgivings and doubts.

The Vietnam war became an albatross around Nixon's neck and was an issue that led to deep divisions in American society.  Nixon was forced to bring the war to an end and perhaps he was the only person who actually believed we left Vietnam in an "honorable" fashion.  The fact is, our asses were kicked by a third-rate power that had the advantage of seeking to remove unwanted invaders and was willing to take many casualties for so long as it took to get the USA to turn tail.  We "won" most of the battles, but we lost the war.

A favorite saying among the conservatives (the so-called "silent majority") who at the time supported the war was "America - love it or leave it."  Well, my view is that that saying is bullshit!  If I disagree with something the government has done, I'm supposed to pack up and leave my native land so that all the rednecks who supported the war wouldn't be challenged to examine the behavior of their government?  No way, dude!  There's no point to all the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution if someone who disapproves of some government behavior isn't afforded those rights.  If we lived in a perfect world, perhaps there would be no disagreements and no clash of principles.  But that's not our world and it's not the way my nation operates.

I've come to the conclusion that public protests (like that of Colin Kaepernick) are the most important element of our national freedoms.  Great love for the nation is exhibited by those who want to work within the system of laws to try to turn something wrong into a positive.  We can't learn from our mistakes if (a) we believe our government never makes mistakes, and/or (b) we ignore or even cover up those mistakes.  A patriot doesn't see America as perfect but works to overcome our errors and misjudgments via the rules and norms of our democracy, and may advocate changing rules and norms to prevent injustice and discrimination.

Right now, we're experiencing a critical juncture of our national history.  Trump and his GOP enablers are seemingly working toward the abolition of the Constitution and the creation of an authoritarian dictatorship.  They're providing encouragement to bigots in our nation, committing a crime against humanity against the migrants seeking asylum and a new opportunity for their families.  My government is being transformed from a Constitutional democracy into a cruel dictatorship.  How can I support the Trump regime?  As I see it, I would rather die than live under a Trumpian version of totalitarianism.  Despite my deep and abiding love for my nation, if its government is recast in the image of Trump and his enablers, I will exhibit my patriotism by being an advocate for the cessation of the Trumpian dictatorship!