The right wing's perversion of patriotism

Today's conservatives often use a jingoistic brand of patriotism to criticize rivals.

It once was a given that you did not discuss religion or politics in polite company. To this list, I would add “patriotism.” It has become the new secular American religion, so mercurial that we cannot even agree about what it is.

It is regrettable that a once healthy American patriotism has morphed into intolerant jingoism. Love of country has been hijacked.

It was not always thus. As a boy in New England, just after World War II, I was schooled in patriotism quite unlike what’s out there today. The week before Thanksgiving, public schools taught us the Pilgrims’ vision of religious liberty. On Memorial Day, Cub Scouts marched up to Pine Hill Cemetery and laid flowers on the graves of Civil War veterans, who we learned had fought and died to preserve the Union.

In Massachusetts, patriotism had special currency because it earned us an extra holiday that schoolchildren in most other states didn’t have, Patriots’ Day. It commemorated the “midnight ride of Paul Revere,” who warned our forebears that detested British soldiers, “lobster-backs,” were marching on their hamlets.

In classrooms we memorized the Gettysburg Address, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

Massachusetts was and is arguably the most liberal state in the Union and yet it drilled patriotism into its schoolchildren for generations.

So where do America’s conservatives get the fatuous idea that they are the only true red, white, and blue patriots?

How did a quiet “love of country” morph into an aggressive right-wing, warlike chauvinism?

There was something McCarthyesque about the megaphones of the Bush-Cheney-Rove administration propagating the myth that they had cornered the market on patriotism and civic virtue.

Check my wallet. I still carry my frayed Selective Service System card that says I registered for the draft July 9, 1958. Although I always suspected Vietnam was a wrongheaded war, if drafted, I would have served. Years later, as a war correspondent, I saw more combat than many US soldiers.

Compare that with chest-thumping Republican hawks like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who received multiple draft deferments and never served in Vietnam.

How did Americans arrive at the obscene point where people routinely say, “If you don’t agree with me you aren’t a real Christian” or a “real American,” or a “genuine patriot”? By what measure of chutzpah did the Republican right challenge the patriotism of those who disagreed with their Iraq policy during the Bush years? That’s not American democracy. Rather it smacks of Europe’s bellicose totalitarian regimes of the past century.

Too often in recent years, the Republican right has smeared its critics as soft on communism and crime, timorous on defense, and only weak-wristedly engaged in the war on terror. The three Republicans I most admired in my lifetime were hardly liberals and two were personal friends: Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and Bob Dole. But they never would have demeaned their fellow Americans for disagreeing with them on something as serious as war.

As a Washington correspondent in the late 1960s, I would wrangle with then-House minority leader Ford about Vietnam. He never challenged my patriotism and decades later privately told me I had been right.

When did dissent become un-American? Some of our greatest national milestones were about dissent: The Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement.

Today’s GOP jingoism smacks too much of self-seeking self-promotion, only confirming Samuel Johnson’s observation that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” True patriots owe allegiance to something greater than their own ambition.

Patriotism shouldn’t be a political club with which to beat your political opponents about the head. Like the law, it is the glue that not only binds a people together but keeps them from tearing each other apart.

The Israelis get it right. They have universal military service for men and women that provides social cohesion in an otherwise fractious Jewish society. The Israeli army is the great melting pot, the great social leveler, blurring the line between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.

Israelis argue violently about varying partisan visions of what the Jewish State should look like. To the eavesdropping outsider, one might well suspect they are about to murder one another. Indeed shouting at one another passes as civil discourse. But in 5-1/2 years there, I don’t ever recall one Israeli challenging the patriotism of another.

Republicans I used to cover had a motto, “Never speak ill of another Republican.” To that should be added: “It is unseemly to question the patriotism of Americans merely because you disagree with them.” Anything less is un-American.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.


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