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Common Dreams

Patriotism, Democracy, and Dissent

"I am an American." These words hauntingly recur in a recent Advertising Council campaign. The voices and faces reflect some of the race, nationality, age, and gender classifications in our official census. Commendably, Native-, African-, and Arab- Americans are included. But as a nation contemplates war, the question inevitably arises: what is it to be an American? Progressives and anti-war activists have a stake in this debate. Patriotism demands scrutiny, but it may be a mistake for dissidents casually to reject all forms of patriotism as the last vestige of scoundrels.

Patriotism now trumps even commerce. For many years, sports fans heard the National Anthem only in stadiums. Today, televised games often begin with ceremonies that include honor guards and elaborate renditions of both America the Beautiful and the Star Spangled Banner.

Should those of us in the slim ten percent that opposes carte blanche grants of war powers to the president still deem ourselves patriots? Surely not if love of country means commitment to a unitary, all embracing set of ideals and policies. Patriotism then becomes little more than a security blanket. "Patriots" submerge inner doubts and anxieties by immersing themselves in a mass cause and defining all dissidents as not only wrong but inherently dangerous.

Many who have witnessed the invocation of patriotism in defense of monstrous injustices jump to two other problematic conclusions. Some find in the weaker victims of jingoism a new patriotic home. Some of my generation's Vietnam War opponents flew Vietcong flags, in deep denial of the atrocities that side itself committed. Others endorse abstract and rather vague notions of world government.

I have philosophical objections to these alternatives, but I also cannot embrace them because something in these public celebrations resonates even for me. These collective celebrations bespeak a will to affirm and preserve life for all, even complete strangers, amidst social and natural tragedy. In terms borrowed from the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, God does not will all but He wills that we make the best of all. These public affirmations are at least in part an outcome of our democratic commitment to voice and individuality for all.


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Democracy can fall victim to destructive fits of collective and self-justifying illusions, but democracy is the best answer to these illusions. The democratic experiment with individual voice can also invite demands that we learn to get along with as many different creeds, races, even life styles as possible if we are not only to survive but to thrive intellectually and emotionally.

As I ponder patriotic memorials for those who died, I reflect on the great civil rights hymn "we shall overcome," featured in many celebrations. Now a sanctifying hymn, it was once a song of protest by those slandered as "unpatriotic." Official patriotic celebrations bespeak a people where individual rights for all represent either the norm or the inevitable course of history. Yet our history may be better understood as one of democratic struggle. To the extent we are the beacon of freedom and democracy, it is because of political struggle. If we are to remain a beacon, we need to commemorate these struggles. The multicultural face of American advertising today is a testimony to decades of struggle by minorities and reform leaders to extend to excluded minorities a place in our politics.

To commemorate these tragic deaths, I would follow Fordham University political science professor Tom DeLuca's suggestion "that we memorialize all those who perished on September 11 with the greatest tribute we can bestow. The Governor and the state legislature should declare election day, November 6, 2001 a day of "Remembrance, Reflection, and Affirmation of American Democracy" - a day in which we both remember the sacrifices..., but also a day of action and participation in the core moral belief of our political system. Election Day should become in our imagination a Democracy Day, a day in which there is a clarion call to participate."

DeLuca's recommendations should be adopted and broadened by the US Congress and by other states. Election day for President and Congress should become a national holiday. Nonvoting is a national scandal, and one can no longer plausibly maintain that Americans don't care about their neighbors. Yet unfortunately, voting is not regarded as an effective, accessible, or practical way to share grievances or concerns. The working class and ethnic minorities celebrated in our patriotic outpourings vote in even lower proportions. Democracy Day would not by itself solve that problem, but by freeing time and signaling our commitment to democratic politics, it would be a step in the right direction. If we are to fashion ongoing, constructive solutions to terrorism and poverty without resort to violence or dictatorship, politics across borders, ethnicities, and classes is vital. A beacon to the world would jumpstart the process by educating and encouraging an active and vigorous politics in which all can negotiate their claims to rights and joys amidst the efforts to thrive together.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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