IN SHADOW OF SEPT. 11, WE ARE ALL PATRIOTS

Burlington County Times, November 12, 2001

As a college student in the late ‘60s, I looked down at anyone who espoused patriotism. It was the provenance of knee-jerk conservatives who wore billy clubs in their cummerbunds and put “America, Love Her or Leave Her” bumper stickers on their American-made cars. They believed that anyone who didn’t support the U.S. government’s policies on Vietnam was a card-carrying pinko Commie traitor. They didn’t wear American flags as patches on jeans; they waved them.

All of a sudden, I find that I’m now one of “them.”

I still don’t believe that the U.S. can do no wrong or that the government, even in time of crisis, should be exempt from criticism. I have a lot of hesitations and doubts about the course it is pursuing against the Taliban by bombing Afghanistan. And I am appalled and angered by what I perceive as its hypocritical attitude towards Israel’s own battle against terrorism. And nothing will convince me that George W. Bush was chosen as president by a majority of the American electorate.

But I found myself tearing up seeing thousands of school children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in unison. And I made sure that we went to the neighborhood carnival raising funds for Leroy Homer’s daughter’s college fund. And I put a dollar into almost every Red Cross canister I see. And I’m not even tired of hearing “God Bless America” for the umpteenth time.

What is particularly surprising to me is that my pride in the U.S. precedes the events of September 11. Every time I attend a township meeting, I feel that I am seeing America at her best, democracy in action. True, there are parts that I find silly, such as the ritual repeating of the legal phrases each and every time a motion is made; and there are parts I find disturbing, such as the opening prayer which, ecumenical as it may be, still seems to me to be a breach in the wall between Church and State. But everyone gets a chance to speak his or her mind; everyone gets a chance to rail against a proposal or speak in favor of it. Meetings sometimes go on for hours longer than expected to give the public its voice.

And whenever I vote, I feel a surge of – well, let’s admit it – patriotic pride. I try to vote in every election, even if it’s a local one with no particular controversies or issues. It sometimes doesn’t matter who wins; it’s the fact of voting, the fact that we are allowed to do so privately and freely, that is important.

I am glad, though, that this latest election is over. We can finally reclaim our radios and listen without being bombarded by countless repetitions of the same ads extolling or lambasting the candidates. I had hoped after September 11 that there would be a higher tone to the campaigns, that there would be a semblance of civility to the debates, that the candidates (and I’m referring to candidates for all offices, not just the governorship) would tackle their substantive differences and not rely on innuendo and character smears. When President Bush asked us to return to normalcy, I’m not sure that dirty campaigning was part of his plan.

And, let’s face it, patriotism has been taken to far extremes. I listened yesterday to what I thought was going to be a public service announcement about helping each other. It was a car ad. The flags on cars flying side by side with the 76er’s flags from last season make it seem that we’re just another sports team. I have seen red-white-and-blue motifs on every conceivable consumer item. Fear has become a conduit for free enterprise, as “anthrax detecting kits” are sold on the Internet.

But our core values as a nation remain the same, and have been strengthened. Even those who are trying to capitalize on the patriotic fervor or the anthrax threat are fulfilling the American dream of free enterprise. No one has been jailed for criticizing the government. Satirists and comedians are free to lampoon every aspect of the government’s actions, whether from the stage or in the comic pages.

There’s an old saying – probably from the 60s – that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. The U.S. has been mugged. We haven’t all become conservatives, just as we weren’t all liberals before. But those of us who considered ourselves part of the “counter-culture” are now proclaiming ourselves to be patriots.

Thirty-Five years ago, it was only liberals who wore flags and conservatives who waved them. Today, we all do both.

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