Patriotism, sir, is the last refuge of a scoundrel —Samuel Johnson (1775)
It's often been said that all politics and all poetry are local; that makes as much sense as saying all veal is saltimbocca, but I know what they mean: You have to start somewhere, and you can hang your broadest ideas on specific nails. A case in point today is the term "patriotism," which has been hung on nails twisting it beyond recognition.
As you can infer from the above quote by that esteemed conservative, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), patriotism has been misused for centuries. But today's abuse of the word is special. When I'm driving along in St. Petersburg and notice the Hummer in front of me sporting an American flag decal, I don't automatically smile and chirp, "Patriot!" Instead, I tend to pout a bit and mutter, "Republican," linking the flag to a party, a war, an automobile, a belief in torture and a disbelief in global warming.
I know this isn't logical — as the saying goes, some of my best friends are Republican — but the GOP has succeeded in wedding the flag, along with the word "patriot," to party and policy. This is the background of the skirmishes the news media have with Barack Obama's wearing, or not wearing, the flag lapel pin. Obama lets himself get bullied into wearing it, because he can't afford to say, "It's stupid. It's just a pin, with baggage."
You can make a case that this tainted brand of patriotism began in the late-1960s with Richard Nixon's jealousy of the handsome and rich John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, with his Harvard education and Boston accent, represented the "elite" classes that Nixon instinctively hated, and Nixon's lupine genius was his realization that about half the country — the "silent majority" he skillfully manipulated — resented them, too.
First, he collected the "Wallace Democrats," Southerners led by Alabama governor George Wallace, splitting them away from the Democratic party with veiled racism, pushing for "states' rights" and polarizing the country. Then he sent Vice President Spiro Agnew out to alliteratively attack those "nattering nabobs of negativity," the pointy-headed "intellectual" crowd who supported integration but were against the Vietnam War. Soon the voters were lining up: On one side were the Republican "patriots"; on the other were the Democrat "elites," who supported abortion, welfare and integration, but not tax cuts, God or our troops. The fundamentalist churches came aboard on the issues of prayer in the school, gay rights, evolution and, eventually, global warming. Nixon, who didn't believe in much of anything except politics, played these songs masterfully: As Watergate soldier Roger Stone told Jeffrey Toobin, the daily practice on selling these scams was "Admit nothing. Deny everything. Attack, attack, attack — never defend." And after Nixon went down in flames, a much smoother actor, Ronald Reagan, picked up the baton in 1980, symbolically kicking off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964.
For our 50th anniversary, I gave Jeanne a DVD set of 50 classic films (we're movie nuts). Organized alphabetically, the first one was Sergei Eisenstein's paean to Russian patriotism, Alexander Nevsky. Although Eisenstein was often in Stalin's doghouse, the dictator used Nevsky to fire up the Russians against the Nazis. Patriotism can be a great force, for good (Churchill/ Roosevelt) or evil (Hitler was a master).
We should love our country, right or wrong — but when we think it's wrong, we need to let it know, just as with our beloved children (patriotism stems from pater, Latin for "father"). What parents and citizens want is to change behavior for the better. History is already showing the Vietnam and Iraq wars were not only unnecessary but shameful. As a character in a fine new novel, Netherland, observes, "A great power has drifted into wrongdoing." Scott McClellan's recent memoir, What Happened, details the sordid background of our Iraq policies, just as Robert McNamara's earlier mea culpa outlined the lies that kept us in Vietnam, but their self-serving confessions are too late to be called patriotic.
In Barack Obama's speech on June 3 he promised, "We will not use religion as a wedge, or patriotism as a bludgeon." As we marched in our Fourth of July parades, I hope Americans saw through the rockets' red glare, keeping our eyes on this long war, remembering those who got us into it unnecessarily and those who have been sacrificed to it. Next, we should vote for those who will try to get us out of it.
Finally, here's a quote from another famous conservative, the old Rough Rider himself:
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. —Theodore Roosevelt (1918)
Eckerd College recently announced the establishment of The Peter Meinke Endowed Professorship in Creative Writing. The first holder of this position will be novelist Sterling Watson.