Alternative Insight

The Politics of Patriotism

Genuine patriotism is a benefit to any nation. Public spirit has a valid purpose--it gives a nation's people a common purpose and rallies them to support the government in times of crisis. Patriotism also has its dangers--it can stimulate virulent nationalism, prevent fruitful policy debates, and carelessly direct a nation into destruction, pain and sorrow. Politicians, government agencies and "special interests" take advantage of critical situations to advance their positions. Pernicious forces subvert genuine patriotism with slogans, simplifications and "calls to patriotism" that disguise faulty policies and mask tendencies that create crises. Freedoms are defended by limiting freedoms. Policies are finalized after limited discussion. Thoughtful expression is replaced by thoughtless nationalism.

Patriotism has its purposes. It also has its traps. The politics of patriotism provide the traps.

Trapped by Commitment
Preventing South Vietnam from being overcome by North Vietnam pushed the U.S. government into a trap by commitment. The Johnson administration accused a North Vietnam "navy" consisting of a few "homemade" torpedo boats of attacking an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin. No damage and no record of any torpedoes! A patriotic fervor moved the U.S. Senate, with only two negative votes, to adopt the 1964 Tonkin Resolution. The Resolution allowed the president to take "all necessary steps to protect the forces of the United States and its allies." U.S. participation in the Vietnam conflict grew quickly, and without a formal declaration of war.

Michael Beschloss in his review of President Lyndon Johnson's tapes concluded that although Johnson realized the United States could not win the war, he could not stop American involvement. The government's repeated commitment to protect Southeast Asia from communist expansion fostered a political expediency that prevented Johnson from admitting he had erred. The president used patriotism to gather support and characterized Vietnam War protesters as unpatriotic. The patriotism appeal sustained 13 years of battle and resulted in 53,000 American deaths and several hundred thousand wounded. Post Vietnam War events did not support the U.S. government's original reasons for its aggressive commitment.

If those who challenge present polices are limited in their debate and silenced with patriotic rhetoric, then assuredly the present political climate will resemble the Vietnam era political climate. If so, another trap by commitment can be expected.

Trapped by Poorly Conceived Policies
Properly prepared policies require 360 degree vision; regarding them from all directions, preparing for reactions, consequences and alternatives. Instituting an aggressive policy before firmly placing the precautions and protections against a reaction invites danger.

After the attack on the American embassy in Beirut, President Reagan exclaimed. "We will not be deterred from achieving peace in the area." Since that proclamation, the Middle East has been in a constant turmoil and attacks on American installations, including embassies, have consistently occurred. The Middle East policies, shaped in the mid 1960's and continued to the present in an unswerving direction, have been accompanied by an ever growing terrorism against the American people--airplane hijackings, ship hijacking, shootings, plane bombings and the September 11, 2001, atrocity.

The ever-growing terrorism and the fateful September 11 attack demonstrate that suitable preparations for reacting to the consequences of debatable Middle East policies had not been implemented. The U.S. government and its intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies continually failed in their obligations to protect the American people. Despite the continuous failures, the American people did not challenge the narrow focus of policies that increased the terrorism against them. A blind patriotism masked the questioning of careless investigative agencies and resulted in the public being trapped by poorly conceived policies.

The indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui as a co-conspirator in the September 11 terrorist actions proves the carelessness of the investigative agencies. The FBI detained Moussaoui after receiving information from a Minnesota flight school that of his suspicious behavior. The FBI did not contact other flight schools in the country to ascertain if a similar pattern of action existed. The FBI did not even examine Moussaoui's computer files until after Sept. 11.

The political apparatus responsible for the intelligence failures have cleverly shielded themselves from angry voices. They have declared a crisis, and a "call to patriotism" that subdues any demand for investigating their past actions that failed to prevent the September 11 catastrophe.

Trapped by Demagoguery
The government, and sometimes those who control media sources, often define patriotism, and then use the patriotic definition to promote their "special interests." Attached to the definition is a bundle of "catch " expressions; "pulling together," "our country right or wrong," "no time to contradict the leaders," "our cause is just," etc.

The definition places everyone on guard. Nobody wants to be accused of a lack of patriotism. It is recognized that in a time of crisis a nation's people should be "pulling together." But "pulling together" is correctly performed when it doesn't pull apart the country's principles, doesn't destroy its foundations of thought and discussion, doesn't fragment its vision and wisdom.

One example of being trapped by demagoguery: Although the 1898 Spanish government was compliant, ready to leave Cuba and accede to U.S. demands, the demagogue "jingoists' of 1898 wanted war with Spain. The "mysterious" sinking of the Maine, an American ship in Cuba's harbor, triggered the "patriotic" slogan "Remember the Maine." After that event the war could not be stopped. The "freed" Cuban, Puerto Rican and Filipino people then fought the United States occupation of their territories for many years. In the Philippines insurrection led by Aguinaldo, the U.S. suffered 4,234 dead and 2,818 wounded. The Philippines had approximately 20,000 military and 200,000 civilian dead. Of course, Puerto Rico is still a U.S. colony.

Demagogues use the word "patriotism" to advantage. "Patriots" are often trapped by demagogues.

Trapped by False Allegiances
Patriotism isn't only a "wartime" condition. It's a 24 hour, 7 day a week condition in a nation's affairs. The social, economic and cultural fabric of a nation are easily betrayed by those who personally benefit by manipulating policies at the expense of the nation.

The Savings and Loan scandals of the late 1980's proceeded with assistance from several senators and suborning of regulatory agencies. Banking loan defaults to Latin American nations in the 1980's transferred huge sums of money out of the country. The crash of companies and the Enron bankruptcy are some examples of the finance industries using the American people for their own advantage. Congressional leaders reward their campaign contributors, by permitting them to dictate policies and then present themselves as "patriotic" leaders.

The sometimes collusion between American industry and the U.S. military, which has yielded the phrase industrial-military complex, has at times demonstrated a disregard for the American people and its interests. Politicians maneuver to obtain contracts and bases for their states regardless of the necessity for the contracts or the bases. Elevated costs, cost overruns, and worthless results characterize part of the military budget. Those who are expected to perform the highest patriotism replace patriotism by personal greed.They defend the nation, with false allegiances and co-opt the symbols of patriotism for personal benefit.

Sen. John McCain criticized the Department of Defense for a $30 billion plane leasing deal that seems to fight terrorism by enriching the distressed Boeing company. Sen. McCain's words to a non-listening Senate: "Even in the middle of a war...the Appropriations Committee is still intent on using the Department of Defense as an agency for dispensing corporate welfare."

False allegiances bring misery and hardship to the American people, and the malevolent actions are repeated again and again. Ironically, history shows that the public continues to be guided by the same symbols and continues to be trapped by the same false allegiances.

Genuine Patriotism
War, ugly war, is often a legitimate response to attacks on a country. Still, a more genuine patriotism strives for peace and harmony rather than war and death. Somehow, the "call to patriotism' never considers support for peace and harmony. Perpetual war, in which the United States has engaged, invokes patriotism. Advocating peace invokes doubt and uncertainty, a questioning of patriotism.

A citizen who derives personal power, feelings of domination and control from the government's power and control, substitutes patriotism for duty. Genuine patriots develop their own power and use that power to exercise control over the government. American doctrines speak of "governing by consent of the governed," and not the governed blindly consenting to the government.

December 16, 2001


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