Jul 3, 2008

Deep Thoughts: on Patriotism

July 3rd, 2008

It's the day before the 4th of July, Independence Day. The radio is on in the background talking about what the definition of patriotism is. Of course, there are many different ideas, coming from many different arenas in this country, as to what the definition of patriotism is. This is an election year, and the accusations about who is patriotic and who is not abound. We are at war, and any disagreement with it's motive for being fought is often met with a critical look or an accusation of being unpatriotic.

Patriotism in general, at least for my generation, has been a hot topic since at least 9/11. Listening to the radio today to a few of the explanations of what people think being patriotic means really got me thinking. Someone suggested that supporting American companies overseas was patriotic.

I'm sitting here looking at the skyline of downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, and I can think of at least a few American corporations who I'm not too proud of. I can see U.S. Bank. They have the lease on my wife's Jeep. They've not been bad to us personally, but they won't let us out of a lease either. I tried to ask them about refinancing the lease to a purchase the other day and they want more for the vehicle now that it has been paid on for 3 years then when we first leased it. They, like most banks, are in the business to make tons of money. It's not about helping me, but about helping themselves to my money.

It's interesting that in most downtown areas, banks have the largest buildings. From my vantage point here I can see 5 tall buildings that mark St. Paul: U.S. Bank, 1st National Bank, Wells Fargo (bank), a condo building, and Securian (Insurance... don't get me started). Is that a big surprise? Yet, somehow they feel they have to charge you to keep your money in their pocket. I can think of plenty of other American companies that don't have buildings in St. Paul that I'm not the least bit fond of. Exxon Mobile, Shell Oil, Halliburton, Northwest Airlines, and American Airlines, just to name a few. I could go on and list numerous companies that have defrauded hardworking Americans, and people of other countries, out of their money for years. Some of them still exist while others, the MCI's and Enrons of the world, collapsed under the weight of their own fragile house of cards. No, there is definitely little patriotism to be found in blindly supporting the operations of your hometown American corporations.

I think the fundamental difference people have in their understanding of patriotism is a simple one. Some mark patriotism as unwavering support of the actions of their country or countrymen, their government or their military. If the government took us to war in Iraq, the only patriotic thing to do is support the war. To these people, questioning the motivation or moral standing for the war is tantamount to stabbing "the troops" in the back.

Others, including myself, mark patriotism as an unwavering support of the ideals that this country was founded on. Our ideals could generally be accepted as freedom, peace, and equality for all men, though much falls in between those, and others would add more. Therefore, it is the with these ideals in mind that we consider patriotism, largely because these ideals are communal, applying to all men. They don't blindly give approval or praise for something done in the name of America, except where it's approach, implementation, and result are all for, with, and in the name of those ideals: Freedom, Peace, and Equality. We are American patriots not because we approve of everything our country does simply because we love this country. We love this country because of the ideals it was founded on, and we approve of what this country does where it falls within the constraints of those original ideals.

Patriots of the American democratic experience don't condone the business practices of Halliburton in Iraq, or Enron in Texas simply because they are American companies. We don't like American Airlines just because it's name is American when they are charging customers for everything and cutting the salaries of their workers all while paying out record bonuses to their CEO's. We don't support the war because we are already there and have no choice but to "support the troops." To us, supporting the troops and supporting the war are not mutually exclusive.

On the note of this being an election year, we don't care whether the candidates wear flag pins on the lapels of their expensive suits, or whether they always put their hand over their heart when saying the pledge of allegiance. We consider patriotism from our representatives in government as carrying, upholding, and applying the ideals of the founding documents of this country. All their actions, all of their votes in Congress, all of their bill writing, policy making, and decisions should be marked by the ideals of American democracy, including freedom, peace, and equality, and not just for Americans, but for the world at large.

We don't need to look too deep into the documents that govern this country or into the speeches of some of it's greatest presidents to see support for this understanding of patriotism. This Independence Day we will recall the the original document that bears the holiday's name: The Declaration of Independence, which says the following:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

The most patriotic of all documents in this country dictates the ideals for which we stand. It even went so far as to say that if the government ceases to represent these ideals, it is the right of it's citizens to abolish it and replace it with a government that does hold to those ideals. Abraham Lincoln echoed these sentiments.

From his 1st Inaugural Address:

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.

...and in January of 1848:

"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most sacred right-a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world … . Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much territory as they inhabit."

I don't present this, by any means, to encourage anarchy as a patriotic ideal, though some may question whether our current system of representation in government is leading us to that end. That's another story. Instead, I only seek to illustrate that patriotism, by it's earliest implications in this country has always involved taking pride in what we do that is right, good, and moral. It was never meant to be a hiding place for our most questionable actions to steal away from honest consideration of their value or moral adherence.

To say this is to say that those who question the actions of our country's government, or it's businesses, or it's individual citizens, are at least as patriotic (if not more so) as those who love America for whatever it does. They hold true to the ideals that America was founded on. Their patriotism binds them to hold their government and their country accountable to the ideals for which they stand. The United States is a great country. But we are not great because we are the United States. We are great when we uphold the ideals upon which God allowed us to be formed. Where we fail to uphold those ideals, we fail to live up to the patriotic standards of the Declaration of Independence. Where we fail the the Declaration of Independence, we fail to be patriotic at all.

This Independence Day, I will be thankful to live in the United States because of the ideals upon which is was founded. I will be thankful to live in the United States because of the freedoms I am afforded. And, I will be thankful to live in the United States because it is my "sacred right" to patriotically question the actions of my country, its government, and it's businesses. I am thankful, not proud, to live in a country where that is possible. I feel pretty patriotic about that...

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