Patriotism, Democracy and Dissent

"I am an American." These words hauntingly recur in a recent Advertising Council campaign. The voices and faces reflect some of the race, nationality, age, and gender classifications in our official census. Commendably, Native, African and Arab Americans are included. Patriotism now trumps even commerce. For many years, sports fans heard our national anthem only in stadiums. Today, televised games often begin with honor guards and elaborate renditions of both the anthem and America the Beautiful.

But as this nation moves toward a war of indefinite scope and duration, the question inevitably arises: what is it to be an American? Should those of us in the small minority that opposes carte blanche grants of war powers to the president still deem ourselves patriots?

Patriotism is deeply destructive if love of country means commitment to a unitary, all embracing set of ideals and policies. Patriotism then becomes little more than a security blanket. "Patriots" submerge inner doubts and anxieties by immersing themselves in a mass cause and defining all dissidents as not only wrong but inherently dangerous. Native Americans, immigrants from Japan, Italy, China and other nations, and many domestic dissenters paid a high -- and now widely lamented -- price for this patriotism.

Many who have witnessed the invocation of patriotism in defense of monstrous injustices jump to two other problematic conclusions. Some find a new patriotic home among the losers in the wars of aggression. A few of my generation's Vietnam War opponents flew Vietcong flags, in deep denial of the atrocities that side itself committed. Such denial robs them of credibility in their critiques of their own government. In addition, treating all "Third World" targets of US aggression as utterly and equally without power or choices ironically suggests a view of the world analogous to mainstream perspectives. Portraying all as mere victims encourages either passivity or a turn to Leninist political parties. In either case, constructive political dialogue both within and among states is blocked.

Others appalled by mainstream patriotism's excesses turn to international law and its tribunals as the fitting successor to the nation state. International law can play a vital role in addressing violence among states, but any law always reflects to some extent imbalances of power and congealed prejudices. Law needs the supplement of active politics within and between nations.

Patriotism properly conceived can play a role in this. For me, many of the public commemorations of Sept. 11 reflect not merely chauvinism but also more constructively a will to affirm and preserve life for all, even complete strangers, amidst social and natural tragedy. They remind me of the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's claim that God does not will all but He wills that we make the best of all. These celebrations reflect in part historic American struggles to grant opportunities for voice and individuality to all. Our pantheon of patriotic heroes includes in its number Abraham Lincoln, who as a young member of Congress opposed the Mexican War. It also includes Henry David Thoreau, whose reflections on civil disobedience have inspired generations of activist critics of received opinion.

Democracy can fall victim to destructive fits of collective and self-justifying illusions, but democracy is the best answer to these illusions. The democratic celebration of individual voice can also invite demands that we learn to get along with formerly excluded creeds, ethnicities and races. As Walt Whitman recognized, democracy also encourages willingness to hear and explore the multitude of subterranean voices, currents, and life styles that inevitably arise in response to mainstream culture and practices. Such openness and exploration is vital if we are not only to survive but to thrive intellectually and emotionally.

While watching recent memorials for those who died, I reflected on the great civil rights hymn "We Shall Overcome," featured in many celebrations. Now a sanctifying hymn, it was once a song of protest by those slandered as "unpatriotic." Official patriotic celebrations bespeak a people where individual rights for all represent either the norm or the inevitable course of history. Yet our history may be better understood as one of democratic struggle. To the extent we are the beacon of freedom and democracy, it is because of political struggle. If we are to remain a beacon, it is more necessary than ever to remember and commend these struggles. The multicultural face of American advertising today is a testimony to decades of struggle by minorities and reform leaders to gain a place in our economy and politics.

To commemorate this tragedy, I would follow Fordham University political science professor Tom DeLuca's suggestion " that we memorialize all those who perished on Sept. 11 with the greatest tribute we can bestow. The governor and the state legislature should declare election day, November 6, 2001, a day of "Remembrance, Reflection, and Affirmation of American Democracy" -- a day in which we both remember the sacrifices ... but also a day of action and participation in the core moral belief of our political system. Election Day should become in our imagination a Democracy Day, a day in which there is a clarion call to participate."

DeLuca's recommendations should be adopted and broadened by the US Congress and by other states. Election day for president and Congress should become a national holiday. Nonvoting is a national scandal, and one can no longer plausibly maintain that Americans don't care about their neighbors. Yet unfortunately, voting is not regarded as an effective or accessible way to express grievances or foster collective solutions. The working class and ethnic minorities celebrated in our patriotic outpourings vote in especially low proportions. Democracy Day would not by itself solve that problem, but by freeing time and signaling our commitment to democratic politics, it would be a step in the right direction. If we are to fashion ongoing, constructive solutions to terrorism and poverty without resort to violence or dictatorship, politics across borders, ethnicities, and classes is vital. We should pay tribute to our greatest legacy by once again endorsing an active and vigorous domestic politics in which all can negotiate their claims to rights and joys amidst the effort to thrive together.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2001 The Progressive Populist