Democratic Underground

On Patriotism
January 3, 2002
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

— Theodore Roosevelt

A Prince, whose character is ... marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free People.

— Thomas Jefferson
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 Act."

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 citizen.

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 sick wife?)

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.

Copyright 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"

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