It is a shame that Sen. Barack Obama’s speech on patriotism Monday in Independence, Mo., was overshadowed by yet another false controversy, this time over the appropriateness of comments by retired general Wesley Clark about Sen. John McCain’s qualifications for the presidency. (For the record: When Clark says, “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” he’s right. There. I said it.)
But, perhaps in a perverse way, it underscores the importance of one of the points that Obama made: Our political disagreements over the direction of the country and who is best qualified to lead it in the right direction should never be used as a weapon to question our love for this country. In fact, the willingness to be intensely engaged in the struggle to being this nation closer to its ideals is the very mark of a patriot.
That’s why a campaign we’re launching today at the Campaign for America’s Future is so important. We’re focusing on Fox News Channel, which has a long record of mocking progressives as being less patriotic than conservatives, and telling them: You don’t have a monopoly on patriotism, and it’s time to stop attacking patriotic Americans simply because you don’t agree with them.
We’re also asking you to tell Fox News, and us, what it means to be a patriot. There is space for a short message on the petition form, or you can click the comment link at the end of this post and write a longer reflection. We’ll be highlighting these comments during the Fourth of July holiday.
To the extent that Obama’s speech got television news press attention, it was because of his statement that “I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine.” But the context around that statement is important:
it is worth considering the meaning of patriotism because the question of who is – or is not – a patriot all too often poisons our political debates, in ways that divide us rather than bringing us together. … [T]hroughout our history, men and women of far greater stature and significance than me have had their patriotism questioned in the midst of momentous debates. Thomas Jefferson was accused by the Federalists of selling out to the French. The anti-Federalists were just as convinced that John Adams was in cahoots with the British and intent on restoring monarchal rule. Likewise, even our wisest Presidents have sought to justify questionable policies on the basis of patriotism. Adams’ Alien and Sedition Act, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans – all were defended as expressions of patriotism, and those who disagreed with their policies were sometimes labeled as unpatriotic.
In other words, the use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the Republic.
Obama later turned to the use and abuse of patriotic language in the post-9/11 era:
Beyond a loyalty to America’s ideals, beyond a willingness to dissent on behalf of those ideals, I also believe that patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice – to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause. For those who have fought under the flag of this nation – for the young veterans I meet when I visit Walter Reed; for those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country – no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary. … For the rest of us – for those of us not in uniform or without loved ones in the military – the call to sacrifice for the country’s greater good remains an imperative of citizenship. Sadly, in recent years, in the midst of war on two fronts, this call to service never came. After 9/11, we were asked to shop. The wealthiest among us saw their tax obligations decline, even as the costs of war continued to mount. Rather than work together to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and thereby lessen our vulnerability to a volatile region, our energy policy remained unchanged, and our oil dependence only grew.
When someone makes a comment like the one Michelle Obama made some weeks ago that evoked heated criticism from the right—”For the first time in my life, I am really proud of my country”—it is tragic that the first impulse was not to consider the emotional journey she has traveled as an African-American woman that would lead her to make a statement so mixed with pain and joy, or to consider the journey of the millions of Americans who identified with that comment, but it was to question her, and their, love for this country.
I cannot honestly say, as Cindy McCain said in response to Michelle Obama’s remark, that “I have always been proud of my country.” But I have always loved it. And I don’t think anyone who has been disappointed with the gap between the American ideal and the American reality, and who has fought to close that gap, should have their love for their country belittled. To quote from Obama’s speech Monday, “patriotism involves not only defending this country against external threat, but also working constantly to make America a better place for future generations.”
The need to resolve how we best do that, and how we unite as a country, has never been more urgent.
Let’s tell Fox News and the radical right that from now on, you can disagree with our positions, but you can’t question our love and passion for this country and its core values.