Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Patriot's Dream

Today I heard on the radio “Patriot’s Dream” by Arlo Guthrie, and it really struck me. Hearing it so soon after reading Mark Rudd’s autobiography churned up a lot of thoughts and feelings I wanted to set in order and save. The verses of the song ended with “…try to rekindle the patriot’s dream.” It hit me hard that my generation smothered, to a great extent, the patriotic dreams of earlier generations, particularly our parents’ generation. Those of us who grew up middle-class Americans, in families, simply cannot believe that we would ever actually not know where our next meal was coming from. To us hard times meant giving up cable TV. The worst poverty we thought might actually happen to us is not having a working car, and taking public transportation. We saw the good things in America and took them for granted; the good was somehow immortal. So we tried to correct the bad things.

One of the bad things was what looked to us to be the abuse of patriotism. Yes, America is a great place and I was and am very happy to be an American. I’m not proud of it particularly; it only came to me as God’s gift. Or as Arlo said, “Placed by fate's mysterious schemes.” But it’s a fine line between patriotism and nationalism, between patriotism and imperialism. “America first” is one thing, but “America only” is something else.

When young, we cheered the Third World’s liberation from European colonialism, and did not want to see it replaced by American imperialism, or some form of neo-colonialism. The American actions in Vietnam, and now in Iraq, look too much like an attitude that America can decide what government other people may have. We were (and some of us still are) bitterly opposed to that attitude as the opposite of the country we were taught to believe in, the country we love. When we are told that patriotism means blindly, mindlessly supporting America at the expense of anyone and everyone else, we rebel. And patriotism gets a bad name. It galls me no end to see the right wing fruitcakes appropriate “patriot” as applying only to them. The politicians and other windbags who have done this remind me of Dr. Johnson’s “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

We all have heard Stephen Decatur’s toast “My country right or wrong, but right or wrong my country.” (The quote is not accurate, but it’s what we’ve all heard.) This is not necessarily a bad attitude for military people, and the original is even more so. In entering military service one must give up a degree of independent thought for the sake of necessary discipline. This is why civilian control of the military has been such a cardinal American principle. But in politics and policy making, it is deadly. In my time we much preferred Sen. Carl Schurz’s reply “My country right or wrong; if right to be kept right, and if wrong to be set right.” I also like G. K. Chesterton’s “’My country right or wrong’ is a thing that no patriot would say except in a desperate case.” (Boy, once I start looking up quotes…)

We need to get back to the middle, here as elsewhere (cries the lone voice in the wilderness.) Americans must get back to supporting American long-term interests. Let me emphasize LONG-TERM interests. Being the bully of the world, telling people who wanted to be our friends to take our orders or get out of our way, may work today but ultimately it will be our undoing. Jesus said we must love our neighbors. Why Christians think that His word does not apply to international affairs baffles me. Do you really think that “neighbor” stops at the coasts? At the Rio Grande? I don’t.

So how do we rekindle the patriot dream? It won’t be easy. Arlo’s song is not hopeful. He is of my generation. (Born in 1947, like Mark Rudd and I; a very good year to be born.) We have seen revolutions fail; we tried for earthly paradise and found only imperfect people. The longer I live the less I can understand any faith in human perfectibility. People have always been imperfect and I see no reason to believe they won’t always be, in this world. But if we can’t make it perfect, we can make it better. Our history is full of examples of making changes that improved our communal life, in one way or another. That is the lesson of the America I love: we can make it better. That is the patriot’s dream to rekindle: that once again America can be a beacon to our world of hope for a better tomorrow.