by Ernest Partridge
Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean
to stand by the president or any other public official,
save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by
the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he
efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to
oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiently or
otherwise he fails I his duty to stand by the country. In
either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether
about the president or anyone else
A Prince, whose character is ... marked by every
act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of
a free People.
Declaration of Independence
"Patriotism" is a word that has been hyper-conspicuous these
days. The Congress of the United States has even chosen that
word as a label for its anti-terrorism bill: "The USA PATRIOT
So just what does it mean to be a "patriot."? Who are today's
"patriots"? What historical figures exemplify this civic virtue?
Judging from the casual use of the word, it would seem that
most everyone has a clear intuitive sense of the meaning of
"patriotism." Even to inquire as to its meaning might appear
to many of our fellow citizens to be, well, "unpatriotic."
Such an attitude is unworthy of a critical mind and a free
And so, to begin, we ask: who was and is a "patriot"? Washington,
Jefferson, Paine, those who pledged their lives, fortunes
and sacred honor by signing the Declaration of Independence
- all these come to mind. But what about Colonel Klaus von
Stauffenberg, whose failed attempt on Adolf Hitler's life
caused the Colonel his life? Or Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet
Union? More recently, how would we characterize John Dean
during the Watergate affair? Or Daniel Ellsberg?
The dominant meaning of "patriotism" as it is used today
in the popular media seems to be "support of our nation's
leadership during this time of peril." By implication, as
John Ashcroft seemed to suggest to the Senate Judiciary Committee,
criticism of our leaders amounts to virtual treason.
By this account, Washington, Jefferson, von Stauffenberg,
Sakharov, and all those others mentioned above, were traitors,
for they all rebelled against "constituted national leadership,"
i.e., King George (House of Hanover, not House of Bush), Adolf
Hitler (legally elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933), the
Brezhnev regime, and Richard Nixon, respectively.
Clearly, unconditional allegiance to a leader will not do
as a criterion of "patriotism." Otherwise, an "unpatriotic"
or even "treasonous" leader would be an oxymoron. In fact,
history provides an abundance of examples of such leaders.
"L'État, c'est moi!" was a concept against which our
forefathers successfully fought a revolution. In our political
tradition, it seems, "patriotism" implies a different object
of loyalty than whosoever might, at the moment, be our appointed
(or if we are lucky, our elected) leader.
On reflection, it would seem that the "patriotism" exemplified
by the founders of the American republic consists in an allegiance,
not to persons, not to offices, and not even to institutions,
but rather to political and moral ideals. Such ideals as self-determination,
the social contract, inalienable human rights, and additional
ideals such as those enumerated in the Declaration of Independence
and the Bill of Rights.
And yet, if polls and the pundits are to be believed, the
prevailing public opinion demands that we accept without dissent
and in the name of "patriotism," the legitimacy of an unelected
President, a curtailment of our liberties enumerated in the
First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments, which means our
right to privacy, to habeas corpus, due process and
competent counsel. In addition, the public appears willing
to allow the President, through "executive order," to set
aside acts of Congress, such as the Freedom of Information
Act and the Presidential Records Act - in direct violation
of the separation of powers stipulated by the Constitution.
Many brave individuals who have protested against such usurpations
or who have criticized other aspects of the President's conduct
in office have, if lucky, been met with scorn and derision
from their fellow citizens, and if unlucky, they have lost
their jobs. If recent history serves as a guide, there is
no assurance that in the near future, still worse retaliation
might await the dissenters.
Clearly we seem to be dealing with two distinct and often
conflicting concepts of patriotism. One is based upon a loyalty
to individuals and offices, while the other is founded upon
abstract moral and political principles.
This distinction is illuminated by the work of two heavyweight
Harvard professors: Moral philosopher, John Rawls, and the
late cognitive psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg. In independently
developed yet remarkably similar theories, Rawls and Kohlberg
describe "stages" of development of moral judgment and capacity.
As the individual matures and ascends to a higher stage of
moral development, his judgment becomes more comprehensive,
nuanced and integrated - more "cognitively adequate," to use
Kohlberg's term . Moral puzzles that are insoluble on a "lower"
level are resolved on a higher level. (E.g., should an impoverished
husband steal a medicine to save the life of his desperately
Kohlberg describes six stages of development, in three pairs:
"pre-conventional" (obedience to authority), "conventional"
(conformity to social norms), and "post-conventional" (moral
autonomy - social contract in politics, and obedience to abstract
principles in personal morality).
Rawls's ascending categories are "Morality of Authority,"
"Morality of Association" and "Morality of Principles." (Theory
of Justice, 1971, pp. 490-1). By this account, the child first
develops a love and a loyalty to those most immediately and
conveniently present and caring - his parents. The loyalty
is extended to relatives and friends, and then to such abstractions
as associations and institutions to which one's acquaintances
(and oneself) belong. Finally, the loyalty attaches to the
most abstract of entities, ideals and principles.
A dramatic moral crisis, such as the Watergate Scandal, often
illustrates the conflict between these three stages of morality.
In the Watergate affair, some officials were motivated by
their loyalty to a person, i.e., Mr. Nixon. Others were moved
by their loyalty to an institution, i.e., the Presidency.
Still others, such as John Dean, acted in accordance with
their duty to uphold the general principle of equal justice
under the law.
This conflict among concepts of "patriotism" as obedience
to authority, as conformity to convention and as
loyalty to principle resonates throughout history and
literature. For example, Shakespeare thus depicts Brutus'
justification of his assassination of Julius Caesar:
Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than
that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? ... Who is here
so base that would be a bondman? Speak, for him have I offended...
Who is here so vile that will not love his country? Speak,
for him have I offended.
Anthony then turned the attention of the crowd toward Caesar's
alleged personal virtues of charity, mercy, modesty and generosity
(not conspicuous either in Shakespeare's portrayal or in historical
accounts of Caesar's character). Antony finally appeals to
the greed of the crowd by producing a fraudulent "will" claiming
to bequeath Caesar's fortune to the citizens. (Not unlike
a promise of tax rebates).
Both appealed to "patriotism" - Brutus to a loyalty to principle,
and Antony to loyalty to a charismatic leader. The Roman mob
chose Mark Antony's lies and cult of personality over Brutus'
ideals. And that decision marked the end of the Roman Republic.
Today the American public may be facing a similar decision,
and the predominant indications are that this public is more
persuaded by Antonian appeals to "stand behind our leader."
And that is reason for grave concern.
If our republic is to endure, then any and all leaders and
offices must be constrained by the principles of our Constitution
and the rule of law, and must stand upon the foundation of
the consent of the governed. That consent was violated in
the disenfranchisement of the Florida voters before the 2000
election, by the harassment of election officials immediately
following, and by the judicial coup d'etat by the Supreme
Court in Bush v. Gore. The American public appears
willing to "get over" this massive violation of the franchise.
With this quasi-legitimacy safely in hand, the Bush Administration
seems intent now upon dismantling the Constitutional system
of checks and balances, along with the Bill of Rights.
If by "patriotism" we mean allegiance to shared political
ideals, embodied in the rule of law, then a President and
his Administration must earn the support of the public by
exemplifying these ideals and by submitting to the constraints
of the law and our national charter, The Constitution. After
all, every President, in his very first act in office, takes
an oath that he "will to the best of [his] ability, preserve,
protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
That oath appears, verbatim, in the Constitution itself.
(Article 2, Section 1).
The President who fails to abide by this oath relinquishes
his right to hold his office, and it becomes the patriotic
duty of the legislature, the judiciary, and the citizenry
to separate that President from his office.
In the current controversy over "patriotism," our collective
moral and political maturity is being severely tested, as
we encounter this crucial question: "Is our ultimate loyalty
to our leaders or to our Constitution?"
The apparent answer of the American public today to that
question must fill the authentic "patriot" with great concern
- and greater resolution.
2002 by Ernest Partridge. Ernest
Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field
of Environmental Ethics, and a Research Philosopher at the
University of California, Riverside. He publishes the website,
"The Online Gadfly" www.igc.org/gadfly.