The Double Edged Sword of Patriotism

As I listened to President Obama’s victory speech Wednesday morning – I confess, I didn’t make it long enough to listen to it live – I was struck by two things he said that I am rather ambivalent about. I believe these things are important enough that we all would do well to ponder them in our hearts. My rendering of his statements will be a paraphrase in the interest of brevity.

The first was his statement that we live in a county where the son of an immigrant furniture maker in North Carolina could grow up to be anything he wanted to be – even President. As far as that goes, I agree with him. However, I think it is important that we also acknowledge that the likelihood of a kid from the streets growing up to be President is extremely small. We don’t forgive in America, and an arrest record is a barrier to election in the unenlightened minds of rural America. Seeking national office requires funding and education, among other things, and we do a very poor job addressing inequality of opportunity in education, healthcare, and housing in urban areas. The rural son of an immigrant has a much better chance of being elected even to the office of dog catcher than Pookie does, much less President.

The second thing that bothered me was the predictable but distressing reference to patriotism as something that makes America great. In theory, patriotism does make a country stronger. However, in contemporary times we see patriotism often cross over to nationalism. In fact, quite often what we call patriotism is actually nationalism. No patriot ever said, “My country right or wrong,” because that isn’t patriotism, that’s nationalism. Patriotism by definition includes protest, demands for reform, questioning the status quo and speaking against it when it is in error, organizing and agitating for change, and so very much more than standing for the flag when it passes in the Fourth of July Parade. Yet how often to we hear those who work to make this country better characterized as unpatriotic?

There are also far too many times when allegiance to country seems more important that allegiance to personal values, including spiritual values. How many in America, on both the right and the left, readily abandon or pervert their professed spiritual beliefs in favor of partisan politics? We experienced a prime example of this when Paul Ryan characterized the catholic teaching of God’s preferential option for the poor as meaning that we ought not to help the poor but rather force them to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. It’s also more than a little interesting to me that I have heard that rhetoric at least since 1968. Wouldn’t you think that if a solution had any potential for working that forty-four years would be enough time for it to have worked? We simply cannot sell out our spiritual principles in favor of political or patriotic principles because the latter are too easily corrupted.

We just came out of an election cycle that saw two wildly divergent values systems running against one another. One at least had a history of some effort toward lifting up the less fortunate. The other wanted to cast them aside in favor of what they characterize as economic prosperity – but for whom? What concerns me is that these elections were close, which would seem to indicate our values are in the tank. Do we really need more, or do we – the richest nation in the world – need to appreciate what we have and learn to be content? We believe happiness lies in the next purchase, but whatever we purchase eventually either breaks or runs out. Perhaps we need to look at how most of the world lives and be content with our so-called modest home and used car. We definitely need to understand that true happiness is found not in what we have but in how we help others. If you aren’t happy, volunteer somewhere. You will be amazed at the difference it makes.

I have often written that peace begins within. If we want peace in the world, we need to have peace in ourselves. I would argue that logic continues in ever-expanding circles. If you want peace (substitute any value you would like for peace) in your neighborhood you need to start with peace in your home; peace in your city is built upon peace in your neighborhood; peace in your State requires peace in your city, and so on. We so very often attempt to apply global or national solutions without first taking care of the local and individual. If you are one of the 99% hoping to become the 1%, the question isn’t how to get there – the real question is why you feel the need to get there. What are you trying to medicate?

I believe with Gandhi that we must become the change we want to see. Since I am a spiritual person, I believe the only thing that will get us there is spiritual practice – even if atheism is your spirituality. Of course, we need to continue programs on every level as we work on ourselves but if we want to move beyond the status quo we simply must take the time to work on ourselves. Our very future depends on it.

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