The Most Patriotic Act Of All

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The Nation

The Most Patriotic Act Of All

by
Katrina Vanden Heuvel

The Nation has always marched to a different drummer, opposing US involvement in the Spanish-American War and World War I and the Vietnam War, while giving all-out support to the US effort in World War II. Former Nation editor Ernest Gruening of Alaska was one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to the Vietnam debacle.

As a result, we've been called--among other things--un-American and unpatriotic throughout the 142 years The Nation has been around and publishing. After all, going back to our founding by abolitionists, through the movement for labor rights in the 20s and 30s, and the movement for civil rights in the 60s, those who fought to achieve the American dream of equal rights for all were scorned, ridiculed and deemed disloyal.

Our definition of patriotism is fighting to make sure your country lives up to its highest ideals--which is one reason the magazine published a special issue on patriotism for its 125th anniversary in July 1991. It came during the aftermath of the First Gulf War, when many of that war's opponents were being slapped with the "unpatriotic" label. The anniversary issue was a reflection of our love of country and it gave voice to the rich and diverse panoply of ideas about what patriotism means, has meant, and will mean.

In the lead editorial, the eminent political thinker John Schaar described the issue and its contributors: "This patriotism is rooted in the love of one's own land and people, love too of the best ideals of one's own culture and tradition…This patriotism too has deep roots and long continuity in our history. Its voice is often temporarily shouted down…but it has never been stilled…We should not be surprised if this voice is often heard lamenting or rebuking the country's failures to live up to its own best ideals, which have always been the ideals of the fullest possible freedom and the most nearly equal justice for all…There are about as many kinds of patriots and patriotism [in this issue] as there are writers. And that is exactly as it should be. For the chief worry about the thing called patriotism is that one or another group is always trying to grab the term, put a parochial meaning on it and impose that meaning as the only legitimate one, silencing and excluding others, denying them a place at the table."

Here are some creative and keen insights on patriotism from other contributors in that issue:

William Sloane Coffin: "… But if uncritical lovers of their country are the most dangerous of patriots, loveless critics are hardly the best. If you love the good you have to hate evil, else you're sentimental; but if you hate evil more than you love the good, you're a good hater. Surely the best patriots are those who carry on not a grudge fight but a lover's quarrel with their country…. Beyond saluting the flag, let us pledge allegiance 'to the earth, and to the flora, fauna and human life that it supports; one planet indivisible, with clean air, soil and water, liberty, justice and peace for all.'"

Molly Ivins: "I believe patriotism is best expressed in our works, not our parades. We are the heirs of the most magnificent political legacy any people has ever been given. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident….' It is the constant struggle to protect and enlarge that legacy, to make sure that it applies to all citizens, that patriotism lies…. Vote, write, speak, work, march, sue, organize, fight, struggle--whatever it takes to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Ran across one of our good [legislators] at the end of the last session…. He said he felt like a country dog in the city. 'If I run they bite my ass, if I hold still, they fuck me.' Calling all country dogs: It's a helluva fight."

Jesse Jackson: "… Those who have fought for the highest and best principles of our country, the true patriots, have been vilified and crucified. The true patriots invariably disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, and are persecuted in their lifetimes even as their accomplishments are applauded after their deaths…."

Mario Cuomo: "The term 'patriotism' seems to be raised most often in the context of military action and at times has been used as a test of support for our country's military activities. But I understand it to include a respect for contrasting viewpoints, an acceptance of dissent, a tolerance--and even a welcoming--of the clashing diversity of voices that is uniquely American…. A proper patriotism would recognize that there are no absolutes when it comes to solving our social and international problems, except the standard by which we must judge all goals--our willingness to help one another, and to help others."

Natalie Merchant: "Patriotism asks that we embrace a unified America, yet no simple vision of America can accommodate its diversity.... The heritage we retain and the characteristics of the one we adopt intermingle; we are defining and becoming American…. There is one tradition in America I am proud to inherit. It is our first freedom and the truest expression of our Americanism: the ability to dissent without fear. It is our right to utter the words, 'I disagree.' We must feel at liberty to speak those words to our neighbors, our clergy, our educators, our news media, our lawmakers and, above all, to the one among us we elect President."

Other contributors to the patriotism included Floyd Abrams, Sue Coe, Slavenka Drakulic, Martin Duberman, Howard Fast, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Vivian Gornick, David Halberstam, Hendrick Hertzberg, Margot Kidder, Erwin Knoll, Ring Lardner Jr., Colman McCarthy, Mary McGrory, Katha Pollitt, Calvin Trillin and Gore Vidal.

Sixteen years later, on this Fourth of July, our nation is so very far from fulfilling the promise articulated by these great patriots. That's why The Nation continues to publish and struggle to make this a better place--to repair and renew that which has been shredded: our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution… always informed by what the eminent historian Eric Foner wrote in the days after 9/11, "At times of crisis, the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil liberties, the right to dissent and equality before the law for all Americans."

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

© 2007 The Nation

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