Election 2008  
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It's Time for a Radically Different View of Patriotism

Republicans do not own the rights to this word. Obama has an opportunity to change how we think about patriotism. Will he take it?
 
 
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"If the 2008 election is to be a debate about the true meaning of patriotism, then bring it on." That's the clarion challenge from bellwether liberal columnist E.J. Dionne: "Obama cannot simply cede the terrain of patriotism to McCain." Right on, E.J. "And progressives should not assume that patriotism is somehow a bad thing." Right again.

But whose patriotism should Barack Obama proclaim? Dionne's suggestion is (Are you sitting down?) … Theodore Roosevelt. Well, that's just "bully." But hey, I thought John McCain owns the rights to TR symbolism in this year's campaign. He got there first, with his "Man in the Arena" video, featuring Teddy on the campaign trail and then cutting to McCain waving to the crowds -- a TR for our time.

Of course everyone can make their own TR, just as everyone can make their own brand of patriotism. Let's take a look at this year's models, liberal and conservative, and see if we can tell the difference.

The McCain-TR pairing seems like a natural. Both made their reputations as war heroes, risking death in service to their country. Roosevelt went on to show his patriotism by presiding over a brutal occupation in the Philippines and sending the Great White Fleet around the world to let everyone know that the United States did "carry a big stick." When the Great War broke out, he scorned President Woodrow Wilson for being too weak to use U.S. force against Germany.

In the McCain video, Germany also figures large. TR's brief appearance is sandwiched between sound bites of Winston Churchill rallying his people to stand tough against the Nazis: "We shall never surrender. Never give in." Then cut to McCain, rallying his people: "We're Americans, and we'll never surrender. They will." Who are "They"? McCain doesn't tell us.

But it doesn't really matter. McCain projects that his TR-style patriotism is not about advancing specific national interests against specific enemies. It's about an abstract emotion: the pride of being so rough and tough, with such a big stick and such resolute will, that we will never surrender to anyone. He would have you believe it's about a clear-cut choice between the rugged Westerner who has proven his toughness in war and the inexperienced Harvard grad whose strength of will has never been tested.

E.J. Dionne wants that Harvard grad to keep on pushing his own version of patriotism, quoting rather different sound bites from Teddy Roosevelt. Real patriots reject "gross materialism," TR said. If "the big business man" wants to be patriotic, he can't just pile up profits. He must benefit "the public which he serves" -- something that tax-cuts-for-the-rich Republicans seem to have forgotten, as Obama often reminds us.

But McCain has not forgotten. In his video, TR's words are not about war but about service to country here at home. He pledges to the American people that he will put all his strength "at your disposal." ''Surely there never was a fight better worth making than the one which we are in,'' Teddy proclaims, in a clip filmed during his 1912 campaign for president, the same campaign that produced the famous line: ''We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.'' The sacred battle he fought that year was not against foreign enemies. It was against corporate selfishness, and for progressive domestic policies.

Selfless service, not macho belligerence, is the central theme of McCain's patriotism. "I owe America more than she has ever owed me," he says plaintively, as the video shows the young naval officer in North Vietnamese chains.

Well, it turns out that selfless service is the central theme of liberal patriotism, too. "True patriots believe that freedom from responsibility is selfishness; freedom from sacrifice is cowardice," E. J. Dionne quotes from a liberal manifesto he's touting, The True Patriot.

He might have done better quoting Todd Gitlin, who makes the point more sophisticatedly in The Intellectuals and the Flag. The Left has abandoned patriotism, Gitlin laments, not only because love of country has been so abused in our age of American empire, but because in principle it conflicts with individual freedom. "Patriotism decrees that we are not free. We are obliged" -- obliged to subscribe to our nation's ideals, to take responsibility for making sure all our fellow citizens benefit from those ideals, to pursue that goal by engaging with all Americans, whether we like them or not, in the political arena, where pragmatic compromise is a patriotic necessity.

That's precisely the gist of what McCain says, too. He disagrees sharply with liberals on the specific policies that patriotism should lead to. He puts more stress on how good America already is, while liberals talk more about how good it can be if it lives up to its ideals. And those differences are certainly important when we are choosing which view will have power for at least the next four years. But they are just differences in emphasis.

When it comes to the fundamental meaning of patriotism, it's hard to see much significant dispute. Which is why Dionne does not really want a campaign debate about the true meaning of patriotism. He, too, assumes that there is only one true meaning. What he really wants is a debate about who can best put that one meaning into practice, as he admits in his conclusion: "A competition between Obama and McCain over who can issue the most compelling summons to service would serve the country far better than an empty rhetorical skirmish over which of these candidates is the true patriot."

Roosevelt would have applauded that call, as Dionne points out. But so would McCain.

When it comes to patriotism, liberals and conservatives agree on two key points. First, they treat "America" as a fixed entity with a fixed set of ideals, something larger than any one individual and thus deserving selfless service from every individual. They all agree that John F. Kennedy was right: You should ask only "what you can do for your country" -- as if "country" were the master, and "you" and I and all of us merely servants.

The other point of agreement is a rule of rhetorical style: Never say what patriotism should be. Never treat it as a matter of opinion, a struggle among a variety of options. Instead, take your preferred version of patriotism and declare it the one and only, true red-white-and-blue, meaning of the word. Dismiss all the other options as false and misleading, or what TR decried as mere "silly sentimentalism in words."

But there are many different ways to understand patriotism. Obama has suggested another one himself: "Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it." He, too, treats this one option among many as if it were objective fact. But his words open a door (probably unintentionally) to a very different approach to patriotism: one that does not see America as a fixed entity or an ancient set of ideals to be served, but an unpredictably open-ended process, to be created anew every day by the free choices of its inhabitants.

The great exponent of this view of patriotism was Martin Luther King Jr. It's a telling fact that the '60s hero Obama is always likened to is not Dr. King but JFK, the great apostle of serving your country. King may have sounded like he was saying much the same thing as JFK. He certainly praised America's founding ideals and called us all not to challenge but to fulfill them. That's one big reason he could become so idolized by white America.

But a closer reading shows that, between the lines, King opened up the prospect of a radically different view of patriotism. He agreed that patriots prize freedom above all. Yet he gave the ideal of freedom a meaning that few if any of the founding fathers had in mind. For King, freedom meant the ability of each person to discover and then fulfill their deepest human potential, "to become what you were meant to be." But he insisted that no one person could ever have that freedom unless every person had it, because "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

So King's America is not a static entity, nor a collection of individuals each guarding their own rights. It is an organism, a network of potentialities inescapably interlocked in endless relationships. Each part is always changing, and the changes of each affect all the others. The nation is really nothing but those potentialities and their ever-changing organic relationships.

The essence of patriotism is fully recognizing and consciously participating in that network of mutuality, paying very close attention to -- and constantly responding to -- what everyone else is doing and saying and wanting and hoping.

Out of the manifold relationships emerge ideals and institutions. But those ideals and institutions are valuable only insofar as they support the fulfillment of each and all. The individual is the master; the nation's ideals and institutions exist merely to serve individuals. So in King's America, true patriots do not serve some imagined immutable entity called "America" or "American ideals"; rather, they serve the needs and aspirations of every person.

With the emphasis on "every." No one can be excluded from the single garment of destiny. Everyone counts equally. No one's fulfillment can be ignored or devalued, because, as the Campaign for Community Values puts it, "We are ALL in it together." So no one can be an enemy to anyone else. True patriots are willing to suffer, if need be, to promote the well-being of every other person, even the most oppressive. That is the essence of King's commitment to nonviolence.

Yet the ultimate goal of patriotism is not selfless service, as if we had to restrain some supposedly dangerous "individual self" in order to protect society. As King said, there is nothing inherently dangerous about human nature. And there need be no conflict between the ultimate good of self and nation, because they coexist in one organism, like the fingers and the hand. Patriotism, like the nation itself, exists only to serve the fulfillment of every self.

Since the organic network of relationships is always changing, patriotism is not guided by a fixed set of already-known doctrines or principles. It is an endlessly flexible and utterly unpredictable process. Thus it expresses genuine freedom. It loves an America that truly embodies freedom, because the nation can be whatever we want it to be. And it will become whatever we make of it.

Finally, the logic of King's thought dictates that patriotism cannot stop at the nation's border. The network of mutuality spans the globe; we are each affected by the actions of every other person, everywhere. So none of us can be fulfilling our own potentialities unless every other person, everywhere, is doing the same. To promote our freedom we must promote the genuine freedom of all others, all over the world. The essence of patriotism is paying very close attention to -- and constantly responding to -- what everyone else is doing and saying and wanting and hoping, everywhere.

The patriotism that King offered us would have been strange, perhaps incomprehensible, to Teddy Roosevelt, whom liberals and conservatives alike offer as the model of patriotism. King's patriotism is still strange, perhaps incomprehensible, to most Americans. The prevailing assumptions of our culture simply haven't changed that much since 1912. So perhaps a battle for the mantle of TR, and a debate about who can best restore the America of 1912, is a short-term political necessity.

Or perhaps Dionne picked TR as his paragon of patriotism only to steal the symbol away from McCain. If so, I'm OK with that. I'm willing to do just about anything to keep McCain out of the White House. But if it's Obama moving into that house on Inauguration Day, we should cheer for just a little while, and then get down to the hard political work of pushing the new president to treat MLK, not TR, as the true patriot.

Ira Chernus is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin .