July 04, 2012

What is patriotism?

Per the quote of Samuel Johnson, it’s “the last refuge of the [sic] scoundrel.” He used “the” because he had a particular person, Lord Bute, in mind. A few big-political-spending rich, like the Koch Bros., seem to fit that definition.

Per Sen. John J. Crittenden, speaking during the Mexican War, and shortened for posterity, it’s “my country, right or wrong.” To that, G.K. Chesterson replied, “ ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ ”

Crittenden’s idea could be seen as that of the non-rich Tea Partiers, except that it’s not. Crashing planes into IRS buildings, or supporting a person who does, makes that clear.

Then there’s Jack Kennedy’s inaugural words, “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country,” which comes from the only Presidential inaugural address in history to be 100 percent about foreign policy. (Even that line is arguably about it.)

It’s great, right? It tells Americans not to be selfish. Well, it’s not so great in light of another comment in that address.

Kennedy’s famous line was followed by “Let every nation know … we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.” (Which, if you want to be honest, isn’t that different in content, though it is in tone, from Barry Goldwater’s “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

I see Kennedy’s “Ask not,” as potentially being not too far from Crittenden’s comment.

Why shouldn’t I ask what my country can do for me, even if I don’t believe in a Lockean “compact” theory of government? Jefferson, after all, talked about the consent of the governed.

There’s been plenty of comment about, and hypocrisy about, patriotism through the ages, per this list from Wikiquote. (On the hypocrisy, I think of eventual, but not early, Vietnam opponent and still-segregationist William Fulbright, among those on that list.

So, what is patriotism?

For me, it is about asking questions. Not accepting easy or pat answers. Opposing wrongful actions of our leaders, no matter their names or political alignments.

And, it’s about exercising our democratic, constitutional liberties. Have you ever burned a flag as free speech? Marched in a controversial protest as free assembly?

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