Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pondering Patriotism...

The 4th of July stands for many great things in our Nation's history. One of the many is national pride and unity, in a simple sense, patriotism. I got to thinking about that word yesterday, and I started to realize that I am not very fond of the way it's thrown around these days. Many things can be considered patriotic, but at the same time many things are, by their very definition, not. The hard part is attempting to define patriotism from a libertarian perspective. The very nature of fealty and liberty conflict in a manner that makes the mind ache. How can one be free but believe and support so whole-heartedly the force that threatens liberty? Therein lies the constant struggle which creates the inherent instability of democratic political systems. But the question remains, can there ever be a liberated patriot, an American Patriot in our democratic system? To answer the question, it's necessary to mix certain metaphors and, to some extent, acknowledge incoherent logic.

Democracy is a dangerous business. As Adam Michnik noted, "As a rule, dictatorships guarantee safe streets and terror of the doorbell. In democracy the streets may be unsafe after dark, but the most likely visitor in the early hours will be the milkman." However, understanding the volatility of the system fails to explain the nexus between liberty and patriotism. Abbie Hoffman's perspective sheds some light on this point. In his view, "Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it's something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles." Dwight D. Eisenhower would probably agree with this point. Here is a President who helped bring a nation back together after World War II. No small feat considering the state of the nation at the time (millions dead, outrageous national debt from war, the beginnings of ideological struggles with communism, etc.). From his perspective, "[p]olitics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage." Democracy, therefore, lives and operates through action in or about the system.

However, Democracy exists as more than casting a vote. The government system exists to (theoretically) promote protected freedoms. Liberty and the operation of the governmental system grate against one another in a manner that would otherwise bring a fluidly operating society to a halt. Protecting rights, by the very operation of government, means creating limitations on liberty, where liberty would be the absolute freedom from such restrictions. As the Federalist Papers point out, "[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." This points out the tension between the people (their freedom) and government, and the requirement that when out of balance, would seemingly destroy the system. There has to be some counterbalancing force, something pushing against the force that makes freedom seem evanescent. This force has to be something more than the passive act of casting a vote, it creates the instability of the democratic system. This force is the exercise of rights that create the limits on government. Like any system, government needs support. This support would come from those devote themselves to the existence of a country and, correspondingly, the operation of its government.

Patriotism under a democratic government is, by its very nature, paradoxical. Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as "love for or devotion to one's country." This kind of sentiment assumes a measure of unity. Social unity breeds acquiescence when those subordinate to government fall in lockstep behind its leaders' policy and action. Henry Steele Commager cogently makes this point, "[m]en in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive." This cannot work in a democracy since its very operation is action by the people, the exercise of rights that operate to limit the breadth of governmental power.

If government and liberty are at odds, and the common place notion of patriotism provides support for government, then liberty and patriotism are similarly opposed. This conflict creates the need for a new definition of patriotism, one that fits more readily the conflict between freedom, government, and patriotism. Otherwise, patriotism would cause the destruction of a democratic system. Commager's words provide some insight on how to recreate the definition of patriotism. In a democracy, patriotism must be the antithesis of blind support for leaders and government policy. This opposition must be voiced in some manner, and the most effective manner would be in a way that balances the dangers government presents to liberty, i.e. the corresponding exercise of our protected rights. Most notably and most importantly, the right to speak since the exercise of this right serves to influence others, adding to the very operation of democracy in its representative capacity. As Wendy Kramer aptly states, "[p]atriotism does not oblige us to acquiesce in the destruction of liberty. Patriotism obliges us to question it, at least."

Patriotism under the rule of a democratic government, then, must be the exercise of its subordinates which questions the validity of the government's, and its leaders', actions. Even though this act can be dangerous, it's necessary to insure the proper operation of American government. After all, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

To answer the question, patriotism under democracy is not the act of being blindly lead by the elected, but to question their actions, and hold them to the constitutional standard to which they are obligated. The most vociferous dissenter, then, may be democracy's greatest patriot since it is her love for her freedom and country that bring her to question the policy of its leaders. As James Baldwin once said, "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

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