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On 9-11, patriotism, and the U.S. flag

September 11th reminds us to be patriotic, but what does patriotism look like?

This piece was originally published in 2008 on http://www.opednews.com.  It was revised on 9/10/2010 for Psychology Today.

It's the eve before September 11th. Almost 10 years have passed since the September 11th -- almost 10 years since I figured out my personal meaning of patriotism. I feel a little strange writing that last sentence.  I was already married and in my 30s in 2001 and already a member of the faculty at a small liberal arts college in Ohio.  I'd been politically conscious for years already, and, as an immigrant, had been reflecting on what it means to be "American" since early childhood.  By all accounts, you'd think that I would have grasped the notion of patriotism long before 2001. Maybe I had, but 9/11 changed everything.

A short while after the September 11th, maybe a few weeks, maybe even a few months, my parents drove from their home in Skokie, IL to visit my wife and me in rural Ohio, where we were living at the time. Along with the usual assortment of edible goodies (both store-bought and home-cooked), this time they also brought with them a large U.S. flag for us to hang outside our house, something they themselves did for the first time just a few days earlier.

This was no small gift (all the stores in the area were sold out and there were literally no flags to be found), and knowing my parents, I well understood the spirit in which the gift was made. Like many immigrants (including myself), my parents had always felt grateful to be U.S. citizens, and given the tragedy of 9/11, I certainly understood why they and millions of other Americans wanted to display the Stars and Stripes. More than anything else, there was, at that time, a feeling of defiance. The towers may have crumbled and thousands of innocent lives may have been lost, but our nation and all that it symbolized still stood -- proud and strong, and unrepentant. The flag was a symbol of all that, a symbol of a nation that may be imperfect but nevertheless worthy of love and loyalty.

But there was something else too in that period immediately after September 11th -- a unity, a coming together of people that typically define themselves by their differences more than their similarities. The New Yorkers talked about it, but the rest of us felt it too. There was a sense of...family, a family in which the siblings constantly fight with each other at home but support and defend each other at all costs when one is attacked by someone else. "We may disagree with each other within our home," the flag seemed to say, "but when you attack one of us, you attack us all." It was a powerful symbol.

And yet, my parents' gift lay respectfully in our garage for almost a full year, before I finally brought it out for Memorial Day. I just couldn't bring myself to hang it as long as most of the people I passed on the street (not to mention almost everyone on TV) had flag decals taped to their cars, their houses, and, so it seemed, their foreheads. Don't get me wrong -- my foreign name and immigrant status notwithstanding, I feel just as "American" as the next "American". Maybe even more so, since unlike those who were born here, I realize that I could be living somewhere else, in the country of my birth -- with its anti-Semitism, widespread corruption, and a history of disregard for civil liberties. So I'm grateful to be a U.S. citizen, grateful to my parents for having the courage to emigrate and to the Unites States for opening the doors to immigrants in general and to Russian Jews in particular. As a child, I loved learning about my new country's history, and I still get occasionally teary-eyed when I think of certain historical events and their contribution to this nation's ideals. These ideals make me feel proud to be here, proud to be an American, proud to live in a nation that values life, liberty, and free will.

But U.S. history has blemishes too -- embarrassing, humiliating, shameful events and decisions, including the forceful displacement of the indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and, in the weeks, months, and now years after 9-11, the impulsive call for revenge, the imprisonment without any formal charges of countless foreign nationals, the deception about Iraq's threat and the corresponding, damn-the-United-Nations-we-do-whatever-the-hell-we-want invasion of Iraq, which has probably increased anti-American resentment among Middle-East Arabs and Muslims ten-fold.

What did it mean to fly the U.S. flag in 2001? Or, say, during the Presidential campaign of 2008?  Did it mean that we love our country? That we supported our soldiers? That we agreed with the administration's foreign and domestic policies? What if we did't agree? Did that make us unpatriotic?

Stop Trying To Hijack Patriotism
"Stop Trying To Hijack Patriotism" Photo by Stephen Poff
http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephenpoff/2829772524/
To listen to many Republicans back then, being a patriot meant to love our country no matter what it (i.e., the government) does, to accept it just as it is, to not be critical of its policies or its leaders. And yeah, to dutifully recite the Pledge of Allegiance during the '08 campaign (which Obama did) and wear a little American-flag pin at all times (which he did not).

And therein lies the problem. Under such a definition, there is no meaningful distinction between love of country and love of a particular administration. Criticizing the latter then becomes the equivalent of disliking (even hating) the former -- which of course makes criticism of any sort beyond the pale, which of course makes Barack Obama and every other non-Republican willing to criticize the administration "unpatriotic."

At the Democratic National Convention, Obama defended his patriotism:

...one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America - they have served the United States of America. So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.

His remarks, delivered in characteristic eloquence, were right on target, but didn't go nearly far enough.

Patriotism may not have a national party, but it does have a national purpose: not to accept, not to maintain, but to improve. This is what I realized back in 2001, as I listened and watched with horror as practically all mainstream journalists and a good number of my faculty colleages -- the very people who should have been providing a critical perspective on the newly declared war on terror and the planned invasion of Iraq -- willingly and actively supported the Bush administration or, at the least, stood idly by on the grounds that it was not patriotic (and therefore inappropriate) to be critical of our government at a time of war.

Dissent is patiotic
"Dissent is Patiotic" From a car on the Upper West side of New York City. Photo by David Neubert
http://www.flickr.com/photos/neubie/859263307/
But, really, dissent is always patriotic, perhaps never more so than during a time of war, because this is precisely when honest and legitimate criticism is needed the most. To engage in it, to say "because I love my country, I refuse to accept its faults and problems and will do what it takes to (legally) change it for the better." is not unpatriotic. To the contrary, it is the kind of patriotism our nation was founded on and, in my view after 9-11, the only kind worth celebrating.  This may seem obvious today when taking potshots at the President seems to be the national pasttime, but it somehow seems conveniently forgotten every time there's a Republican administration.

And the flag? It's not just a symbol of the nation, though it certainly is that; it's also a symbol of the government, as acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court when it ruled in Texas v. Johnson that burning the flag was protected political speech. And if it's a symbol of the government, then displaying the flag indicates not only support of country (what does that mean anyway?) but support of its government. Not "type of government" (not democracy) -- but the specific government that is running our country at that particular point in time. And if that's true, then doesn't displaying the flag mean that one supports the government's foreign policy, domestic policy, environmental agenda, and everything else that the present administration is doing or, as the case may be, not doing -- no matter what that might be. "Long may it wave..." no matter what we do in its name? Not for me, this kind of "blind" patriotism. I want something more.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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