the Bush administration launched the war against the Taliban in
Afghanistan, through the invasion of Iraq, and up to the present,
we have all been called upon to be patriots. Many of us, though,
have questioned President Bush's entire approach to terrorism, and
for that reason millions of Americans who support the President
accuse us of being unpatriotic.
But are we? That depends on which of the three major
schools of patriotism you follow: the original version, the military/industrial
version, or the peace & justice version. Each version made its
debut well over a century ago.
Of the several stirring expressions of patriotic
sentiment that underlie our national identity as Americans, "My
country right or wrong" is perhaps the most widely accepted
as definitive. The original phrase was coined in April, 1816, by
Stephen Decatur, a daring and highly successful U.S. naval officer.
At a dinner held in his honor, Decatur raised his glass in a toast:
country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always
be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."
As a military man, of course, Decatur was obligated
to obey his commander-in-chief's orders, ethically sound or not.
In today's Navy, he would probably have been quietly forced into
an early retirement for even suggesting the possibility that "our
country" might sometimes be in the wrong "in her intercourse
with foreign nations."
Not surprisingly, Decatur's heartfelt expression
of love for his country was immediately seized upon by at least
one businessman with an agenda surpassing that of the defense of
the nation, or even the promotion of liberty and justice for all.
Within a few days of the dinner, Niles' Weekly Register published
a number of toasts raised by other attendees. Decatur's own toast
appeared as follows:
country-In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always
be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong."
The alert newspaper owner or editor realized that
by raising the possibility that America might behave "wrongly"
vis-a-vis foreign nations, Decatur also implied that in such morally
suspect cases, America might not deserve to achieve its wrong-headed
goal. Best to modify the toast to make it appear that at the highest
levels of America's warrior class, to forgo success in any endeavor,
right or wrong, was unthinkable.
I do not know whether Decatur knew of the lie that
this creative 19th century businessman put in his mouth, or whether
he would have approved of it had he known. But it is virtually certain
that this version of Decatur's toast earned the author 19th century
"high fives" from his fellow entrepreneurs. Being economic
realists, they of course knew that sticking to moral principle would
not bring America the power, territory, and booty that enriched
them. So, a subtle tweaking of the quote, from the most powerful
sector of the American polity-the business class-would provide comforting
pre-approval for whatever foreign enterprise the president might
choose. As long as it was successful.
And that, of course, is just how our country's "intercourse
with foreign nations" played out over the years. Had the French
not sold the vast Louisiana Purchase to President Thomas Jefferson,
we can bet that an excuse would soon have been found to win it by
military conquest, in spite of France's solidarity and assistance
during the Revolution. The Mexican-American and Spanish-American
wars were strictly imperialist ventures. In 1917, the communists
replaced the Russian monarchy, and provided the U.S. with a perfect
excuse for further "successful," and mostly wrong, "intercourse
with foreign nations."
After the Soviet Union fell, traditional U.S. foreign
policy was called into question by those who expected a "peace
dividend." In response to this dilemma, a group of right-wing
neoconservatives created the Project
for the New American Century, wherein they boldly called for
expanded American military power, and for unabashed U.S. global
hegemony: America would become the law-maker and law-enforcer for
the entire world.
There was of course some resistance at home to this
vision of American empire. Then came a miracle: 9/11. Soon, the
U.S. military-industrial-foreign policy establishment was back to
its imperialist agenda with a vengeance. (PNAC founders are the
godfathers and policy makers of the present Bush administration.)
Those who do not wholeheartedly ascribe to it risk being called
Peace & Justice patriotism
Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming 'My country
right or wrong.' In one sense I say so too. My country; and my
country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong;
if right to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."
-- Senator Carl Schurz, 1872
In 1899, Schurz reaffirmed his vision of patriotism
at the Anti-Imperialistic Conference in Chicago, Illinois:
confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves
. . . too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous
ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves
under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: 'Our country, right
or wrong!' They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our
free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming
generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the
watchword of true patriotism: 'Our country-when right, to be kept
right; when wrong to be put right.' "
This the patriotism I, and thousands of Americans
in the peace and justice movement hold to. It is the patriotism
that really does believe in liberty and justice for all-including
the peoples of other nations-and does not sell out this sublime
value to America's corporate community.
Nor does this patriotism seek to justify odious
American foreign policy by the specious argument that other nations
have behaved worse. We insist on setting our own highest moral standards,
rather than setting the worst behavior of other nations as the lower
limit of our own. We believe that the behavior of the Nazis and
the Stalinists has provided far too much wiggle room for American
Finally, being a patriotic American is for us more
than simply being a member of a particularly prosperous and powerful
tribe, in which primitive tribal codes--e.g. contempt for other
nations--are obscured by general prosperity and a tenuous tolerance
for criticism of "the American Way" at home.
The Bush administration has cynically played on
the patriotic sentiments of millions of decent Americans to gain
their unthinking support for America's role as the New Rome. This
plan is destined to fail, and if it is not stopped, America will
fall as Rome fell. Only if America's policy-makers are patient;
only if they recognize the legitimate interests of other nations;
and only if they invest our considerable moral capital in building
a global community can America survive in any desirable form.
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