On Patriotism
October 18, 2003
By Peter Buckley (PBinOregon)

So forty-one years ago this month, when I was five years old, the same age as my youngest son is now, I went out around our neighborhood for Halloween dressed up like John F. Kennedy.

I'm not kidding.

I come from an Irish Catholic family, and John F. Kennedy is the first hero I can remember. My youngest son at age five talks about Spiderman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I talked about John F. Kennedy.

And hero worship is not exactly be the best thing for a democracy, and I'm definitely not going to try to make the case that elevating the president, any president, to this kind of level is any kind of patriotic act. I just want to let you know where I come from on all of this. I was five years old, walking around in a little suit with a plastic mask of John F. Kennedy for Halloween. My older siblings urged me on, and at almost every house we went to, I offered my impersonation of JFK.

"Ask not what your country can do for you," I squeaked in a five year old voice with the best Boston accent I could muster. "Ask what you can do for your country."

And I have to tell you something. Through everything that has happened since, everything in the past forty one years, the assassinations, the wars, the progress made, the struggles, the rise and fall of this political philosophy or that political philosophy, through everything else that has happened, I would submit to you that there is not a single phrase you can come up with that offers a better definition of patriotism than that line from John F. Kennedy's inauguration address. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

My family believed this with a passion, obviously. My parents and all of my siblings followed this belief with their work in the world. My own path has been one that has focused on the arts and on politics. I believe that the arts are the soul of our country, and that politics is, believe it or not, our lifeblood. Politics is how we work together to have what I believe each and every patriotic American desires--a government of, for and by the people.

So I want to take a couple of minutes here to talk about patriotism, and to talk about how we could possibly have gone from the passionate and sincere call to ask not what your country can do for you, all the way to where we are now with our country taken to war based on lies, a political system that is poisoned, dysfunctional and corrupt, and a government of, by and for the Ken Lays and the Enrons of America, the best democracy money can buy.

How has this happened to us, and how can we possibly recapture the path towards that overarching patriotic desire for a government truly of, by and for the people, where the idea of asking what you can do for your country is an idea passionately held by all Americans, where we truly embrace the idea of being citizens of the United States instead of suckers, for the con games run by those who have purchased our country away from us?

Suckers is a harsh phrase, but that's what we are. How else can you explain the fact that in the wealthiest country in the world, forty-five million of us don't have health insurance? How else can you explain the fact that poverty is increasing in America, not decreasing? How else can you explain the fact that we can't afford to educate our children, or that millions of Americans work full time, or even more than full time, and yet still can't find the way to care for their parents, let alone themselves, in their old age?

It's because we've been had, we have allowed ourselves to be had, and a very false definition of patriotism has had a lot to do with this. This warped definition of patriotism, in fact, is just one of the big lies that have been fed to us and that we've swallowed over and over and over again in the past forty years.

Patriotism has been defined, over and over and over again in the past forty or so years, not to mean love of your country and your fellow citizens, but to mean blind obedience to the policies of a given administration. During the course of my lifetime, that blind obedience was first demanded for the policies of a Democratic administration, the administration of Lyndon Johnson during the mid 60s and the escalation of the Vietnam war. Since that time however, patriotism has been defined as blind obedience to the policies of the administration of Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush #1 and Bush #2. Anyone, like myself, who has openly questioned the policies of Nixon, Reagan, Bush #1 and Bush #2 has had to deal with consistent accusations of being unpatriotic.

We must reject that lie. Our love of America, and our passionate desire to answer the question of what we can do for our country, must go far, far, far beyond the policies of ANY administration, Democratic or Republican. This kind of shallow, mindless, flag waving patriotism has damaged our country immensely--it is one of the big lies that has hurt all of us--and my statement here today is that this lie, like the others I will mention here, is unacceptable in the United States of America.

Like the other big lies I will mention, the lie of this blind patriotism has been used to divide us, to sow mistrust, to keep us from coming together to do what we can do for our country and to make our country the America we know it can be.

And if there is anything you take away from this essay, if there is one single idea that I would love you to ponder in the coming weeks and months, it would be this--those who do not share our passion for democracy, those who place their own interests above the interests of the United States of America, will use anything they possibly can to divide us. They will use a warped definition of patriotism, and they will use fear. They will bring up side issues like gay marriage or flag burning, they will fan the flames of emotion. It is a given. And it is up to us to refuse to be divided and to passionately participate in the lifeblood of America.

There are only two paths available to us, and the signposts on each one of them are as follows. On one path, the sign says E Pluribus Unum, the Latin motto of our country, out of many, one. On the other path, it says quite simply, divide and conquer.

We have been divided and conquered, and we must refuse to be divided again. From the start of our country, there have been those in power who have attempted to use division and fear to secure and keep power. It speaks to the worst of us, but there it is. Every attempt to expand power, every attempt to move forward to our goal of a government of, by and for the people, has been resisted.

At first, all power was controlled by white, male landowners. They were the only ones with the vote, the only ones with access to government. Slowly, over the decades, the demand for democracy has led us to greater and greater gains, with slavery ending, with women getting the right to vote, with Native Americans getting the right to vote, with the union movement, workers' rights, with the civil rights movement, everyone over the age of 18 having the right to vote, all of us.

The warped, false patriotism and other lies consistently used by those in power to resist democracy, have had to be defeated each and every time to make these gains. And we have done so, as Americans, as citizens, working to make our country better.

But something terrible has happened to us in the past forty years. Those who would cling to power and put their interests above the the interests of America have found the ways to divide us to the point where we find ourselves now with the control of our government in the hands of a handful of corporations and a privileged few, with the needs of millions of our fellow Americans unmet, and with a distrust of who we are in terms of each other and in relationship with the rest of the world.

Besides the division of the big lie of obedience equaling patriotism, this small faction has used the division of race shamelessly, has used the division of religion shamelessly, has used the fear of homosexuality shamelessly, has used our natural discomfort with abortion shamelessly, has used the threat of economic ruin shamelessly, has used very real fears of terrorist attacks shamelessly, has used every symbol and every emotion possible to divide, divide, divide, divide, convince us that we're not all in this together, that somehow it is you against me, and me against you, wrapping us up in side issue after side issue after side issue while they increase their control of our government and the wealth of our country. And we have let them do it.

If you truly want to have political change in our country, you must make a vow right here and now that you will not buy into the big lies of a false patriotism and divisions between us. We need, in my view, something that is beyond political parties, beyond anything we've experienced in our country up to now. The Republican Party has played the card of false patriotism, race and division, and the Democratic Party has played to divisions as well, seeking to patch together enough issues with specific backers to win elections instead of seeking the absolute best for America.

We can't use politics as usual in order to realize the change we yearn for. We need a movement, a coming together, an agreement on the basic issues that unite us, and an agreement to disagree on the rest of them until we actually have, once and for all, a government of, by and for the people of the United States of America.

I would submit that the issues that unite us are these: we all want our country to be secure; we all want our children to have excellent educations; we all want each one of our citizens, particularly our kids and our elders, to have the health care they need; we all want a fair playing field in our country that combines economic opportunity and economic justice--we want, in fact, a fair playing field for the whole world, where the rights of all are respected. I submit that these are American values, shared by the vast majority of our citizens. All other issues, anything and everything else that we agree or disagree on, we must put aside until our movement, a Citizen's Movement in America, all other issues we must put aside until we, as citizens, have control of our government.

A Citizen's Movement. Reaching our goal will take nothing less.

But this movement, a movement of Democrats and Republicans and Greens and Libertarians and independents, this movement can only succeed, can only get us to a place where the basic needs of our people are addressed, if we refuse to be divided, refuse the demands of a false patriotism, and refuse one last big lie.

The last big lie that has been repeated for decades now, that has divided us and kept us from becoming the country we are capable of becoming, the last big lie is this: that we do not actually capable of a government of, by and for the people--that government, in fact, is something outside of us, it is bad, harmful, and must be destroyed.

This idea, this huge lie, has damaged us as much as the huge lie of false patriotism. It takes us in the opposite direction of don't ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. It takes us in the direction of how can you best destroy the very tools we have to work with to make progress, how can you most effectively poison the lifeblood of America?

And that is what is going on. Everytime you hear a politician attack the very idea of government, to try to divide us yet again with the accusation that government is something else, not us, and that government is evil and wrong, not us, that we have to deprive government of funds and resources in order to control it somehow, know that that politician is attempting to keep us from our government of, by and for the people.

This is our country. This is our government. We will not accept it being run into the ground by deficits. We will not accept it not providing the basic services our citizens need. We will not accept lies about being able to have those services without paying for those services, that somehow someone else is responsible, not you, not me, not us.

We will not accept lies about our responsibility to actually pay for the education, health care and government we want. We will not accept lies about war. A Citizens' Movement based on a passion for a government of, by and for the people, based on the true patriotic desire to serve our country and make it better, this is the movement we must come together for, and we must do it now. Imagine what we can accomplish--the best public education system the world has ever seen; the best public health system the world has ever seen; a new economy based on new energy sources, new technologies and the radical idea that everyone who works hard will have housing and food and care for their family; a foreign policy based on the best of America's ideals, and perhaps the most startling idea of all, a government we can be proud of.

We have let our country be taken away from us. We must work on a level beyond anything we have done before--each and every one of us. We must passionately participate in politics, we must use our power as citizens to overwhelm the power of lobbyists and special interests. A Citizen's Movement. Now.

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.