Around the dinner table in the New England town where I grew up, our parents would observe at just the proper time in our political discussions that loving our country meant working hard to make it more lovable. The flag. they would add, could take care of itself.
This advice did not keep their children from rushing down to the annual July Fourth parade on Main Street or arguing over the desirability of “America the Beautiful” versus “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. Commemoration of the nation’s Independence Day was fun, and it made us feel good.
It wasn’t long before my mother and father found an opportunity to restate their message. They did not adopt the defensive patriotism of many immigrants who were sensitive lest their foreign accents and customs seem to cast doubt on their love of the USA.
“When I sailed past the Statue of Liberty in 1912,” my father once said to us. “I took it seriously.” He and my mother wanted to exercise — not massage — their new freedoms on behalf of greater justice and a better democracy. They were all too alert to the fate of nations and peoples who wallow in collective praise at the expense of exercising their rights against the abuses of power and the blockage of opportunity.
The 1940s were easy for patriotism. Against the backdrop of World War II, who wasn’t a patriot? The ’50s were the Eisenhower years, when patriotic feeling elected a wartime commander who, unlike men in that office who never served in the military, rarely flaunted his patriotism.
The ’60s were a reaction to the smugness and conformity of the prior 15 years. The challengers accused the self-styled super-patriots of using the flag as a bandana or fig leaf to hide shame, injustice and aggression, particularly against minorities at home and the Vietnamese abroad. For different reasons. Nixon’s Watergate and Jimmy Carter delayed the inevitable backlash — and return to patriotism — until the fallout from the Iranian hostage crisis spilled over into the waiting hands of Ronald Reagan.
In the ’80s. patriotism and its symbols increasingly have become media extravaganzas for commercial and political exploitation. Such shows and speeches. disassociated as they are from contemporary deeds and national missions. have become refuges for holders of power who seek to define and control the nation’s patriotic sentiments.
The profitable hoopla surrounding the Statue of Liberty was more than show business. Organizing millions of school children to collect quarters and dollars to refurbish the statue was done in a style akin to the monument idolatry of far less democratic regimes abroad. How many of these children learned anything about civil liberties and civil rights in our country during this drive? The promoters were not sympathetic to such linkage.
The challenge is to find activities in our own daily lives that give meaning to our patriotic slogans. and that allow us to define our love for our country through civic achievement. Patriotism is a powerful idea, and one that should be defined by citizens, not by their rulers alone. For me, the meaning of patriotism lies in working to make America more lovable.
The corporatization of our nation’s patriotic symbols did not start with the Statue of Liberty celebration. George Washington’s birthday has for decades been overwhelmingly a time for sales. Early elementary school teachers have told me that when they raise a picture of President Washington in class for identification, the pupils reply: “He’s the car salesman,- “He sells stereos.”
Who has not seen, ad nauseum, the transformation by television and print advertising of Lincoln, Franklin, Jefferson and Einstein — into pitchmen asking us to buy furniture, appliances, insurance and bank services?
An executive for an insurance company named after Lincoln wrote me once, after I sent him a query about commercialization. saying that he believed his company was enhancing Lincoln’s reputation.
The mercantile sheen is overpowering the historical memory of America’s leaders. especially among the younger generations who grew up in a television age. When was the last time a Lincoln’s or Washington’s Birthday was an occasion for celebrating what these men and their times accomplished?
Our national political leaders, much like the corporations. view the sentiments and symbols of the patria as grist in the selling of themselves during and between elections.
Consider Ronald Reagan. an artful master of patriotic ceremonies and rhetoric. Hardly missing an occasion, whether in a sports arena or on a former battlefield, he tells us how much he loves America. With a disarming flattery that only a former actor could perfect. he performs his “Miller Time politics. But shouldn’t his oratorical fervor be measured by actual behavior and accomplishments? Or, as semanticists have warned might happen, have the words themselves become the deeds? To me. loving America should mean energetic efforts to apply existing laws to advance the cleanliness and safety of the water, the air, the soil and the food supply. Loving America should mean maintaining its public investment in highways, soil-erosion control, forests and estuaries. Loving America is furthering the public trust of its public lands. its public airwaves and its public election processes.
Loving America is avoiding economic policies that have made our country the number-one debtor nation in the world. with the biggest trade and budget deficits in the world. a chronically high unemploy‑
ment and poverty rate and a slow rate of economic growth.
Loving America means loving little Americans in need of nutrition and health care. It means loving poor and disabled Americans with a responsive govemment. It means loans to students and training assistance to unemployed youngsters. It means law and order against the powerful who prey upon the powerless. It means a refusal to undermine civil rights, civil liberties. the right of privacy and the freedom of information. It could also mean a national drive on illiteracy and its immense human and economic costs.
How does President Reagan measure up to these standards of patriotism? Not well, to put it charitably.
But what about his greatest patriotic pride — the rearming of America. True. we are in an even greater state of MutuallyAssured-Destruction capability. There is also more fraud. abuse. waste and corruption inherent in a vastly larger military budget. There is also an appallingly weak conventional military capability.
But how difficult it is to question these national problems when the media and the public are daunted by a president waving a huge American flag against the Evil Empire. Manipulative patriotism is a feedstock for Reagan. which allows him to rise above accountability for his own policies and win the cheerleader’s poll.
There are good reasons to reject phony commercial and political expressions of patriotism. The former debases a great asset for any organized society. The latter misuses that asset as a mechanism of submission and control — or. as recent history of other countries has demonstrated, as a method for collective madness and destruction.
The patriotic dazzle surrounding controversial issues also can short-circuit deliberate thinking and the protection of dissent. To be sure, there will always be struggles over the symbols of patriotism. But we should strive, nonetheless. to discern a kind of patriotism that is not an abstraction steeped in nostalgia, but a real, living monument that can be judged by the standard of “liberty and justice for all.”
Finally, if “consent of the govemed” is to have any meaning. the abstract ideal of country has to be separated from those who rule it otherwise the corporate and political governments cannot be evaluated by citizens. And it is the citizenry who must provide the nourishment for a manysplendored patriotism that is open to all people to perfect in their neighborhoods. communities, states and nation.
Let one example illustrate this point: Much of our drinking water is contaminated with heavy metals. organic chemicals and other carriers of silent violence to the health of millions of people. Since 1974, a Safe Drinking Water Act has been available to presidents for making that water safer.
In five and a half years. despite a duty and knowledge to act President Reagan has not issued a single contaminant-control standard under that law. By a bipartisan vote of 94 to 0, the Senate sent him legislation with deadlines for issuing some major regulations dealing with drinking-water hazards. He signed the bill with reluctance.
Unless citizens can turn a national mission for clean drinking water into a patriotic endeavor. Reagan is not likely to become enthusiastic. So latent is his sense of patriotism regarding drinking water cleanup that it is likely to be quickened only if it could be proved conclusively that the cause of America’s contaminated drinking water is an international communist conspiracy.
A patriotism that has been narrowed for use by government and corporations asks only for servile nods or a burst of applause from its subjects. A new and broader patriotism requires a thinking assent from its citizens. In today’s era of proliferating atomic weapons, if patriotism is to have any “manifest destiny.” it is in building a world where all humankind is our bond in peace.