"I don’t believe in ‘my country right or wrong’. My country wrong needs my help.” – Peter Tork of the Monkees, as quoted in TV Guide, September 23, 1967There is a despicable kind of hypocrisy rampant in America when it comes to patriotism. The ultra-conservative crowd (is there any other kind of conservative today?) would have everyone believe that they hold a monopoly on patriotism, and that their more progressive fellow citizens are not only opposed to, but conspiring to destroy, all that true Americans hold near and dear. This shift from the misguided patriotism of “my country, right or wrong” to the phony patriotism of “my country is always right and screw everyone else” is one of the most disturbing and dangerous trends of our time. How ironic that America’s roots were planted and nurtured by rebels, malcontents and unpatriotic criminals. At least that’s what the British said about them then. Today’s conservatives would have sent them all to Gitmo.
I am an American citizen. I love my country. I revel in its history and marvel at its achievements. I am grateful for its freedoms and cherish the values upon which it was created. I fly the flag in my front yard and have voted in every election since I turned 18, except for that one local election many years ago when I had the flu. I have voted for Republicans and Democrats and Independents, although I confess there aren’t many Republicans I could stomach voting for in today’s savagely polarized political climate.
I am proud of America’s soldiers and sailors, both past and present. I am proud that I have ancestors who have served their country in nearly every conflict in America’s history, from my many-times-great-grandfather who fought the French and their Indian allies in the dense and wild forests of colonial Connecticut to my father, an Army Air Corps radio operator in World War II and a Naval Reservist during the Korean Conflict. I am proud that my father rests for all eternity in a green and shady place maintained with care by our government, alongside his fellow servicemen and women of all races, religions and political beliefs. I am proud that I had three uncles who also saw active service. I am proud of an elderly cousin who served by tending to the sick and wounded as an Army doctor. I am proud of another cousin who never got to reach old age because his Air Force trainer exploded in a ball of fire over Red Rock, Arizona, in an adjudged act of Cold War sabotage. I am especially proud of still another cousin who serves his country today as an Army sergeant, just home from combat in the scorched desert and trip-wired villages of Afghanistan.
I am also aware that our military men and women do not hold a monopoly on service to their country. I am proud of the contributions of America’s working people. I am proud to be the descendant of builders, stonemasons, merchant seamen, coal miners, railroad workers, and shopkeepers. My father was a teacher and my mother sold children’s shoes; I am proud of all of their contributions to building the America I love.
I say all this because apparently these days it is necessary to do so. Because my definition of patriotism differs from that of some others, I am called upon to affirm it again and again to the combative, the cynical and the downright ignorant. Like the Freedom Riders, Vietnam protestors, and today’s Occupy Wall Street activists, those who raise their voices or take to their computers to express a difference of opinion can expect to be shouted down or worse by those who believe that the truest Americans are the most complacent and compliant Americans.
I agree wholeheartedly with rock musician Peter Tork, quoted at the top of this column. When my country is being steered down the wrong path, he, I, and many, many people like us, want to see it safely back on the correct course. Unlike the sweetly simple character he portrayed on television, the real Mr. Tork is a thoughtful and scholarly man. It would not surprise me if his comment had been informed, consciously or not, by the orations of one of America’s greatest politicians and patriots, albeit one who is all but forgotten today.
Carl Schurz (1829-1906) was born in Germany and as an army officer fought for liberty and democracy in the revolution of 1848. He fled to Switzerland when that revolution failed and eventually emigrated to the United States, where he became immersed in the anti-slavery movement and politics. He served as a tireless spokesman for Abraham Lincoln’s senatorial campaign in 1858 and led the Wisconsin delegation at the Republican National Convention in 1860.
Schurz was appointed ambassador to Spain by Lincoln in 1861 but returned after only five months to serve his adopted homeland as a general in the Union Army. In 1869 he was elected to represent the people of Wisconsin in the United States Senate, the first German-American to serve in that body. From 1877 to 1881 he was America’s Secretary of the Interior under Rutherford B. Hayes.
Schurz eventually moved to New York City where he became an activist against the corruption of Tammany Hall and served as president of the National Civil Service Reform League. In the closing years of the 19th century Schurz was perhaps the most prominent independent in American politics, noted for his high principles, his avoidance of political partisanship, and his moral conscience.
In an address delivered in New York City to the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York on January 2, 1896, Schurz offered as eloquent a definition of “True Americanism” (the title of his speech) as has ever been given:
“What is the rule of honor to be observed by a power so strongly and so advantageously situated as this Republic is? Of course I do not expect it meekly to pocket real insults if they should be offered to it. But, surely, it should not, as our boyish jingoes wish it to do, swagger about among the nations of the world, with a chip on its shoulder, shaking its fist in everybody’s face. Of course, it should not tamely submit to real encroachments upon its rights. But, surely, it should not, whenever its own notions of right or interest collide with the notions of others, fall into hysterics and act as if it really feared for its own security and its very independence. As a true gentleman, conscious of his strength and his dignity, it should be slow to take offense. In its dealings with other nations it should have scrupulous regard, not only for their rights, but also for their self-respect. With all its latent resources for war, it should be the great peace power of the world. It should never forget what a proud privilege and what an inestimable blessing it is not to need and not to have big armies or navies to support. It should seek to influence mankind, not by heavy artillery, but by good example and wise counsel. It should see its highest glory, not in battles won, but in wars prevented. It should be so invariably just and fair, so trustworthy, so good tempered, so conciliatory, that other nations would instinctively turn to it as their mutual friend and the natural adjuster of their differences, thus making it the greatest preserver of the world’s peace. This is not a mere idealistic fancy. It is the natural position of this great republic among the nations of the earth. It is its noblest vocation, and it will be a glorious day for the United States when the good sense and the self-respect of the American people see in this their ‘manifest destiny.’ It all rests upon peace. Is not this peace with honor? There has, of late, been much loose speech about ‘Americanism.’ Is not this good Americanism? It is surely today the Americanism of those who love their country most. And I fervently hope that it will be and ever remain the Americanism of our children and our children’s children.
In an article that appeared in Harper’s Weekly, April 16, 1898, Schurz spoke just as fluently about patriotism in general:
“The man who in times of popular excitement boldly and unflinchingly resists hot-tempered clamor for an unnecessary war, and thus exposes himself to the opprobrious imputation of a lack of patriotism or of courage, to the end of saving his country from a great calamity, is, as to ‘loving and faithfully serving his country,’ at least as good a patriot as the hero of the most daring feat of arms, and a far better one than those who, with an ostentatious pretense of superior patriotism, cry for war before it is needed, especially if then they let others do the fighting.”
As is too often the case, Schurz’ wise words went mostly unheeded in his time and are all but forgotten in our own.
My solder cousin, upon his return from Afghanistan, had this to say about his experience: “They really hate us over there. We come in and destroy everything and then expect them to love us.” Sadly, that’s the perception of the United States in many countries today, one of a lumbering giant, quick and careless in its might, oblivious to, if not disdainful of, the rest of the world. As Bill Maher puts it so poignantly, “They hate us because we don’t even know why they hate us.”
Schurz, who opposed the Spanish-American War as a trumped-up excuse on the part of the United States for grabbing Spanish territory (an opinion since judged correct by history), expanded on his concept of patriotism in a speech delivered at the Anti-Imperialistic Conference in Chicago, October 17, 1899:
“I 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.’”
“When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.” Vigilance and constructive criticism of our country and its caretakers is the duty of every thinking, feeling American. It is not a compulsion born of hatred or gloating in our nation’s failings; rather, it is a labor born of love, loyalty, and true patriotism. That is, in a nutshell, the raison d’être (the reason for being, for conservatives who can’t abide anything suggestive of wine-sipping, smelly cheese-nibbling, socialist Europeans) for this blog. It’s a get well card, if you will, to the America I love.