MAXWELL:  Some patriotism doesn’t sit well in land of the free

10/28/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I have been keeping a ledger of some winners and losers in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster. Some areas of American life have changed significantly and may remain so for years to come. Other changes may be temporary and deservedly so.

One cultural icon I have watched is the Confederate flag. For as long as I can remember, the flag represented the other America, the America that slavery created. Here, the flag came to stand for the secession of the 11 Southern states from the Union. This act, along with others, brought on the Civil War.

Over the years, all of the ugliness from that era and later has been embodied in the Confederate flag. During my travels, especially in small Southern towns, I have seen the flag flying from poles and roofs of houses and businesses. It nearly always flew alone. Now, I often see the Confederate flag flying on the same pole with the American flag.

Why this sudden bonding of Johnny Reb’s banner and Old Glory? On its face, this is a good trend. It is good if it means those who heretofore refused to forget the Civil War are now rejoining the Union. If, on the other hand, it means the values the flag represents are now seen as the values of the rest of the nation, then putting the two flags on the same pole is troubling.

So, on which side of the ledger do we enter the emerging image of Confederate flag? Is it a winner or a loser?

Next on the ledger are American institutions and the “government” itself. If you recall, even President George W. Bush, like so many recent politicians, ran against Washington, government, during his campaign. He had plenty of company among the citizenry. Our institutions and government could do nothing right.

The twin towers tragedy changed all that, at least for now. A poll released by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago indicates the attacks in New York ignited a 30-year high in national feelings of pride, faith and confidence in the country’s major institutions, such as banks, Congress and the executive branch of the federal government. Even Bush now sees a major role for government.

According to the poll, 67 percent of Americans, two out of three, claimed to have a “great deal” of confidence in the military. This is almost twice the proportion that answered the same question a year ago and 27 points more than during Desert Storm.

Our ledger posts wins for key institutions and government.

As an opinion columnist, I am personally concerned about the fate of free expression both inside my profession and in society at large. At least two of my colleagues, whom I know about, have been fired because they dared to criticize President Bush’s behavior on Sept. 11. Others have been muffled.

All around me and in letters to the nation’s print media, I read chilling examples of attempts to silence those who question anything the president and other executives do and say.

Apparently, some ideas are so out of synch with mainstream public opinion that they should not be expressed at all. I was surprised, for example, when the late night show Politically Incorrect was blasted _ even by network moguls _ for being, well, politically incorrect about Bush and some of his actions.

So, what is the prognosis for free expression _ a cherished underpinning of American democracy? The ledger tells me that the Land of the Free is not as free as it fancies itself.

The meaning of patriotism is another of my concerns. Is its health on the positive or the negative side of the ledger? Is it winning or losing?

Gary W. Jackson, of Mona, Utah, in a letter to USA Today, tackled this issue as well as anyone. He speaks for millions of other Americans now afraid to speak out.

“When one is being asked to sacrifice the precious blood of a son or daughter on the front lines of a conflict, it is not unpatriotic to question whether the action we are taking is the right one,” Jackson writes. “I support George W. Bush because he is the president _ like it or not. And, believe me, I don’t like it. But that doesn’t mean I am going to endorse his and the GOP’s agenda.

“I am adamantly opposed to Bush’s domestic agenda and will question his war policy if it does not bear fruit. What I will not do is succumb to efforts to force everyone into a mind-set in which it is deemed disloyal to question the Bush administration’s policies, now that we are all “united’ behind him.”

Last year, I wrote a column arguing that two years of service to the nation should be mandatory. The angry letters, e-mail and telephone calls came in torrents. In fact, a few who condemned me for being militaristic (one called me a “gung-ho idiot”) are draped in the American flag and writing “patriotic” letters.

Given all of the rainy-day love for America all around, Samuel Johnson’s observation that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrel” accurately characterizes some people.

Patriotism has been redefined in ways that make me uncomfortable. I am not sure that I know exactly what patriotism is. I do know part of what it is not. It is not a sentiment reserved for times of crisis. It is not forced silence. It is not blindly supporting bad policies, foreign and domestic.

The true patriot supports his country. The true patriot may also express doubts and hold fast to his personal truths and values. The true patriot may dare to be out of step with current thinking.