Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pondering Patriotism

I remember a key moment in my undergraduate education: in the Intro to International Relations class, we were discussing patriotism. The prof asked who was patriotic, and since this was Oberlin, only one person raised their hand. Me. So, I was asked about my flag-flying habits and the like, and I struggled to come up with examples of "patriotic" behavior. I certainly am not and was not a patriot in terms of thinking that my country could do no wrong, but I was, at the time, thinking that the US was something I was proud of and perhaps even thought it was not only a great country, but better than the alternatives.

What do I think now? Well, I cringe when I read parts of the health care debate where people refuse to consider the examples of other countries because the US is the greatest country on the planet and in history. While I am often critical of Canada in my entries here, I think I am pretty aware of many American weaknesses and past/present mistakes. As a political scientist, I like to think comparatively, which means that I see when the US is doing something that is inferior to that happening elsewhere--such as having a health care debate where death panels and the like are the foci. It does drive me crazy when Canadians only consider the American health care example, but drives me far more insane that many Americans cannot consider the examples of other countries because of the sense that whatever the US does is inherently better than the alternatives.

I think the discussion in the class focused on the classic question--would I be willing die for my country? And I gave a classically hedged response--it depends. Is the war a good cause or not? [Let's sidestep the discussion of just war and of just ways of fighting wars]

The example of the time was Vietnam, but today I would compare Iraq and Afghanistan. I could imagine myself enlisting to fight in Afghanistan, particularly in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but not to fight in Iraq. And spending a year in the Pentagon during wartime made me value the values of these officers more deeply--duty, honor, love of country, etc.

But this raises the question of whether patriotism is unconditional--is love of country like loving one's kids? Given that the founders of the US, for all of their flaws (slave owning/condoning, etc), were focused on the role of reason in democracy and engaged in reasoned debate in the course of writing the constitution (Federalist Papers, etc.), I do think that the best way to be a Patriotic American is not to blindly support the country in everything it does, but to raise questions about the best courses of action and give enthusiastic support when it is warranted. And criticize and organize against a policy when it seems "unreasonable."

There are valid reasons to oppose the health care reform bills, and reasoning Americans can disagree about the merits of the various bills. But reasoning Americans should be able to learn from what other countries have done and borrow that which works well.

I still tend to think that the US is, ahem, a great country, and the proof is in the flows of people seeking to immigrate and what happens to them over the course of a few generations. Openness is the key, but a reasoned openness. We don't have to believe nor need to publicize the craziest conspiracy theories as being valid arguments. And it would be nice if the debate focused on the key realities of the various proposals and, just as importantly, the costs of continuing the status quo.

Then again, to paraphrase Dumbledore, as a great country, US mistakes are far greater.

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