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American Pie: Patriotism Is A Word I Seldom Use

...In my mind, there is something amiss with passionate, overt glorification of an entity as complex as a nation, especially a nation as diverse and as large as America...

John Merchant takes a cool look at the "my country right or wrong'' sentiments in the USA.

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The USA is a country of fervent patriots. To some extent this can be attributed to the immigrant nature of most of its population, even though many of them are two and three generations removed from the ethnic origins their forebears eschewed. Their sentiments are fiercely expressed, and can be downright combative on occasion. When they say “America, love it or leave it,” it’s a slogan meant to be obeyed.

There is no tolerance of cynicism, or even drollery, an aspect that conflicts with my English origins. When I lived in England, it seemed to me that, deep down, its citizens were profoundly patriotic, but wouldn’t dream of seriously admitting it out loud. In my mind, there is something amiss with passionate, overt glorification of an entity as complex as a nation, especially a nation as diverse and as large as America.
Also, I have a problem in defining patriotism for myself. If it’s love, then how can one love something as nebulous as a piece of geography and its inhabitants. If asked to give my life for my country, I am not sure how I would react. I would, however, certainly join the fight to prevent invasion by an alien culture, or to deny domination by illegitimate forces from within.

The topic of patriotism came up because of an article I read recently about the publishing of some of Mark Twain’s musings in the last years of his life. Though previously published in a heavily edited version, this is the first time the whole text is being made available to a general readership. Twain specified that these writings should not be made public in his lifetime due to his critical comments about the USA, and in particular its foreign policy, and slavery.

He was concerned that his views would damage his reputation. His executors, and subsequently his family members agreed, and went to great lengths to abide by his wishes. The revelation that such a quintessential American could be critical of his country will no doubt shock and anger those who wear their patriotism like a suit of armor, but for me it is refreshing, and only strengthens my regard for his critical thinking abilities.

He was also prescient, in that he believed some of his criticism of American interference in the affairs of other countries would assume more legitimacy one hundred years hence. Were he alive today, Mr. Twain would find plenty of evidence to support his opinions.

Probably the greatest outpouring of patriotism in America since Independence, came in the wake of Al Qaida’s 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center towers. That tragedy also exposed the blind intensity of some of the patriots. If your car did not fly at least two US flags, and carry a bumper sticker or two, your allegiance was suspect. In a country that sets great store by its constitutional right to free speech, it’s ironic that the patriotic extremists will not tolerate dissention.

So it’s fair to say that there is a body of suppressed feeling in the USA that, if allowed to be expressed, could be useful in changing a US foreign policy that lost its way several decades ago. There was a conspicuous failure to come properly to terms with communism and the Soviet Block, which cost both powers billions and billions of dollars, and fiscally starved the development of infrastructure in both nations.

Corollary to that, the decision to enter the Korean and Vietnam wars and the ethnic strife in one time Yugoslavia; the invasion of Somalia, Barbados, Panama, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, could never have been constitutionally permitted without the support of the extreme patriots, and their subversion of the views of more reasoned citizens. It’s more than just unfortunate that a groundswell of opposition to misbegotten foreign policies sometimes takes years to reach a critical mass in the US; at the cost of thousands of young lives, and the maiming of thousands more, not to mention the depletion of the County’s resources and coffers.

“My Country, right or wrong” is a very fine sentiment, but if applied literally, could bring about the demise of the Nation that inspired it. There is plenty of historic evidence to support that argument.


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