A 'good' American citizen: A sacred opinion?

A critical national conversation about dissent is needed.

Recently, I passed an antiwar protest in Center City Philadelphia, a mix of young and old, office workers and students, patting drums to the rhythm of their rap. A moment later, a pickup truck filled with guys clad in bluejeans drove by, waving the American flag and yelling, "Go, America!" Passersby cringed as they tensely viewed the scene and caught a glimpse of the hundred police officers monitoring the drama from across the street.

This "we vs. we" conflict is uncomfortable. Even US leaders seem more focused on middle ground rather than finding ways to disagree more productively. But there is a critical conversation America has yet to have with itself. And with the ongoing dissension over the war with Iraq, it appears that now is the perfect time.

Definitions of what qualifies as national loyalty have always shifted as American society has diversified and matured. A person who is viewed by many as a troublemaker, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., just might end up an honored US hero.

So what defines a patriot, exactly? Is it a person who supports the government through right and wrong in a war or a crisis, or the person who disagrees loudly and engages in lawful protest? Are those who push us all to conform and unite as one country the folks who most love this nation, or is it those who embrace differences and challenge fellow citizens' assumptions in order to reorder society and find hidden flaws?

There is no national handbook - at least not yet - that details how to be a good American. Some would prefer a manual filled with "dos" and "don'ts" to point to and say, "I'm the real deal and you are the pretender."

So it seems for the moment, each person is left to follow his or her own set of personal rules regarding patriotism, even though those lists are bound to disagree. The first few rules on my own list are simple:

1. Vote in every federal, state, and local election even when you can't find one candidate you like.

2. Learn the names of elected officials, and e-mail them periodically to offer insight. (Most of mine are white, and I am African-American.)

3. Attend community or council meetings and stay abreast of public policy and key issues by reading newspapers, listening to the radio, or watching the evening TV news.

4. Model the behavior you want to see in others: Put democratic principles into practice by challenging bias and discrimination in everyday life.

The next rules, which came with wisdom and experience, require a bit more effort and resolve:

5. Respect the rights of other Americans to disagree with you.

6. Accept that your point of view is not the only legitimate perspective.

7. Tolerate dissent.

As I watch American commentators condemn fellow citizens for expressing views contrary to the government, it saddens me. Some people see conformity and unity as building blocks of strength, but I tend to view them as indicators that fear or intimidation is stifling helpful dissent. I am like the CEO who prefers to identify the drawbacks before launching a new product, rather than wait until after it hits the stores. The country that is able to identify the weakness of its own arguments, and make strategic adjustments, is more likely to win over its opponents.

Some Americans will look at these scenes of antiwar protesters standing off against those who support the war effort and shake their heads. They may see a nation in turmoil, but I see a country with the will and savvy to tolerate dissent. Those who think that the opinion of the majority is somehow sacred might wish to revisit history. Our Founding Fathers decided to create a republic instead of a democracy because many feared the majority would not, could not, rule without eventually becoming oppressive and unfair.

Wisely, they opted for a republic, once described by John Adams as "an empire of laws, not of men." Therefore, the protection of the laws that safeguard liberty and free expression is more critical to us than any national consensus ever will be.

The law protects free speech, and those who seek to silence protesters in the name of patriotism might remember these words that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1815:

"Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth; and that, I am sure, is the ultimate and sincere object of us both. We both value too much the freedom of opinion sanctioned by our Constitution, not to cherish its exercise even where in opposition to ourselves."

If we decide that sincere patriots are those who rally behind the government, then we have suppressed the law and sidestepped principles in order to gain a temporary accord. That's not only unpatriotic, it's downright dangerous.

Linda S. Wallace, a former journalist, is a cultural coaching and media consultant.

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