As I See It by Cynthia Tucker


(BEGIN ITAL) "What we mean (by patriotism) is a sense of national responsibility ... a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." (END ITAL) -- Adlai Stevenson, 1952

Webster's defines "patriotism" as devoted love and support of one's country, but that's a meaning that's virtually meaningless. It still leaves us to argue over the qualities inherent in "love and support."

With patriotism already a recurring theme of this campaign season, the public debate has been joined. Do you show love and support for your country only by serving in the military? How about serving in Congress? How about joining the Peace Corps or the diplomatic service?

Do you love your country only if you never criticize its policies? Can't you still love your country -- love it deeply -- if you want it to work to correct its flaws?

Aren't you still a patriot if you're Martin Luther King Jr., who, in criticizing U.S. policies in Vietnam, called his government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today"? Or Muhammed Ali, who refused to surrender to the Vietnam-era military draft and was stripped of his heavyweight title? Or David Iglesias, a Republican U.S. attorney fired by the Bush administration for refusing to carry out partisan prosecutions?

I believe I'm lucky to be an American. Our founding document embraces the revolutionary idea that any citizen should be able to criticize his government without fear of retaliation. While the freedom of "the press" sanctioned by the First Amendment is widely understood as a protection granted to news professionals who disseminate information to the public, its origin lies in a broader mandate: safeguarding the rights of any individual to publish (or broadcast) what he or she knows -- or thinks -- about official conduct.

George Mason would not sign the newly written Constitution because it included few explicit protections for individual rights; he feared a too-powerful government that would eventually become tyrannical, much like the British crown against which the colonists had recently revolted. When the new Constitution was amended, freedom of speech was made sacrosanct. If the Founding Fathers believed criticizing the government was treasonous, would they have protected the right to do so?

Yet, the last several years of disagreements over national security -- the invasion of Iraq, the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib -- have betrayed a misunderstanding of that founding principle. Too many Americans seem to believe that criticizing the government, especially in a time of war, is tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy. Karl Rove and his minions have used that misunderstanding to good effect -- silencing dissent, intimidating critics and generally betraying constitutional principles.

How did we let that happen? How did we let them get away with calling good Americans unpatriotic? Were we so afraid of terrorists that we were willing to sacrifice the principles that we send out soldiers to war to defend?

Perhaps mine is a peculiar view, but I believe patriotism encourages citizens to criticize their country when they believe it has gone astray, when it betrays its principles by using torture against suspected enemies or when it eavesdrops on its citizens without a warrant. I don't want the United States to emulate Egypt, which allows its secret police to torture the spouses and children of anyone suspected of plotting against the government.

I don't want to live in a country like Zimbabwe, where citizens are at the mercy of government-backed thugs, or Russia, where muckraking journalists are mysteriously murdered. I don't want to live in China, whose authoritarian regime has threatened parents who complained publicly that shoddy construction led to the collapse of school buildings in the recent earthquake.

I want to live in an America that strives to live up to its ideals, that continues its journey toward a "more perfect union." And if good patriots don't point out its shortcomings, who will?

As writer Barbara Ehrenreich put it: "Never mind that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots."

Call me a patriot.

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