Patriotism Reconsidered


It is tempting to dismiss Rudy Giuliani's recent judgment about President Barack
Obama's love of country as a sign that America's Mayor will say almost anything to get back in the spotlight. We should not give Giuliani and his unapologetic lack of respect for a sitting president more attention than they deserve.

Unfortunately, Giuliani's comments warrant more scrutiny for two reasons. Let's ignore his red-bating allegation that President Obama was influenced by communists as a child, and focus instead on his statement that the President does not love America. Trying to explain himself on Fox News, Giuliani complained that President Obama "apologizes for America, he criticizes America."

The first reason to pay attention is that this is the latest example of a pattern in which partisans engage in the character assassination of the President of the United States, whoever he or she may be. Barack Obama has been targeted repeatedly with ridiculous allegations from the element of the Republican Party that plays on the gullibility of its followers and plays dirty, in this case by seeding doubt about where Mr. Obama was born, his religious affiliation, his upbringing, his motives and now his love of country.

It is the same scummy political warfare that branded John Kerry as undeserving of his medals from the Vietnam War (an assault than continues today), and accused John McCain of fathering a black child out of wedlock. It is politics without truth, principle or conscience, so vile that the American people should defeat any candidate or political party that practices or condones it. Even in politics and with due respect for the First Amendment, there is a line we should not allow our politicians to cross.

Second, Giuliani's comment reveals a skin-deep definition of patriotism that is, dare I say it, un-American. It is the idea that dissent is disloyal and that anyone who criticizes America hates America. That is an ironically perverted definition of loyalty in a nation born from dissent and whose proudest moments have come in protests against its flaws including racism, misogyny, injustice and other offenses against our deepest ideals.

Let's break it down. To have a conscience is not to hate oneself, and to speak for the nation's conscience is not unpatriotic. If it were, then we would have to conclude that some of our most respected leaders were disloyal by acknowledging when the nation has been wrong. Abraham Lincoln loved America no less for opposing slavery. Ronald Reagan was not unpatriotic when he signed the law in 1988 that admitted we were wrong to intern 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. To love America is to love it warts and all, and to care enough to speak up when it has lost its way.

Giuliani's comments are symptomatic of an element in our politics that has distorted patriotism all the way down to our grass roots. Last year in Colorado, for example, conservative members of the Jefferson County School Board near Denver attempted to revise the district's history books to emphasize the "positive aspects" of America and to avoid material that seemed to condone "civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law".

Yet civil disobedience has been the heart and soul of patriotism in American history -- the peaceful exercise of revolution that Thomas Jefferson believed must occur regularly for a healthy democracy. To their credit, hundreds of the district's students responded with civil strife by walking out of their classes in protest.

Let's remember who we are. We are the nation that became the arsenal of democracy to defeat Nazism in World War II. But we also are the nation that shut its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi prosecution; in 1939, we even refused to dock a ship carrying several hundred Jews, sending them back into the holocaust.

We are the nation that went to war with itself -- a war that cost 750,000 lives -- to end slavery and whose president signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. But we are also the nation whose highest court ruled in 1857 that African Americans were property and that even those who lived in free states had to return to slavery.

We are the nation whose states ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, extending the right to vote to women. But we did so only after denying women that right, and even the right to own property, for nearly 150 years.

We are the nation whose pioneers underwent incredible hardship to settle the West. But we are also a nation whose president and Congress in 1830 ordered the forced march of nearly 125,000 Native Americans 1,000 miles west so that white cotton farmers could take over ancestral Indian lands. Thousands of Native Americans died of starvation and illness on what became known as the Trail of Tears.

We are the nation that Winston Churchill characterized when he said, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing -- after they've tried everything else." Churchill was generous because there are issues where we still have not got it right.

Our most loyal leaders are those who care enough to hold a mirror up to the American people so we can see our flaws. Patriotism is much more profound a virtue than putting a bumper sticker on the back of a Hummer or singing the national anthem at the Superbowl. True patriotism is not goose-stepping along with the crowd when it strays from the path the Founders mapped. And as President Obama himself has reminded us, "a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense." That is not the statement of a president who does not love the country he leads.

One blogger responded to criticism of Giuliani's statements by posting a video in which then-Sen. Obama called President George W. Bush "unpatriotic" for running up the national debt by borrowing from China. While Obama's grounds for that allegation were more substantial than Giuliani's, Obama should not have gone there either.

When public figures suggest that patriotism must be proved with frequent gushy pronouncements of love rather than the relentless blood-and-guts character-testing struggle that it really is, it is time for us to restore the true meaning of the concept.