Thursday, July 20, 2017


I gave this at the Starr King Unitarian Universalist of Hayward, California for Independence Day, 2017.
One person’s patriot is another’s traitor


Yes.  It’s what we on this side of the ocean call “Independence Day.”  Known in England as “The Day the colonies ran away from home.” So Let’s all rally round the flag.  That particular song was used to inspire the north during the American Civil war. It is one manifestation of patriotism.  To some the be all and end all definition is:  “My country right or wrong”…or even worse,  “My country is NEVER wrong.”

There are few words in the English Language with as many meanings as the word ‘patriotism.’
Throughout history, so many have used this ambiguity to suit their own purposes…and those purposes have not always been noble ones.  And the manipulations surrounding the word didn’t just start last year.  It has been with us since before the inception of this nation, and the manipulation perseveres with those who write history.

  Before I go on, I’d like to differentiate between “patriotism,” and it’s relationship to the concepts of “Right and Wrong.”  I think it’s important, at least for today, to do this.  Soldiers are almost universally thought of as “patriotic.”  Whatever side they may be on, they should believe in.  So, while the term “patriot” should be appropriately applied to both sides in war, the judgment of “right” or “wrong” is usually left to the winners in the short term, and by historians for posterity. 

And of course, declarations of war are not the sole province of the word.  I think that in the broad and imprecise definition of “patriotism,” a lot of what we consider very dark and evil motives may be the object of the word.  Are North Koreans patriotic?  How about all those other regimes we decry?  For that matter, what about those willing to kill and BE killed whose allegiance is to organizations like ISIS?  Americans who would stifle free speech, or those who feel we should be guided by their religious principles, I believe, would and do consider themselves “patriots.”  Others, with opposing views, likewise wear the mantle of patriotism.

If one is willing to look beyond the rhetoric surrounding the various wars in which this country has been engaged; past those self serving inflammatory descriptions, ‘good war,’ ‘bad people,’ ‘freedom fighters,’ ‘traitor,’ and of course that rousing word; ‘patriot,’

Of course, patriotism is not an emotion only manifest during times of conflict.
But sadly, it is during times of war that the term patriotism  is most stressed and the citizenry most prodded towards whatever is the current definition during those wars.

And we certainly have had more than enough wars, declared or not, to supply anyone wanting to pick and choose one or more to write about; to comment and to critique…the justification or lack thereof…the results…the cost of lives and treasure as opposed to the expected (or hoped) for results.  Most of all…the motives, rationales, or just plain excuses given to wage war. All those and more can be wrapped into that cloak we call patriotism.

And there so many…so far too many.  I think we might be able to justify some of our excursions, and maybe even the use of the word “Patriotism” to support them.  I was a young kid during world war two…Patriotism was almost universal in the fight with Nazi Germany.  How many Germans perished in the cause of their patriotism?  Were Japanese pilots who knowingly flew certain suicide missions patriots? Certainly voluntarily giving ones life for ones country must be inspired by patriotism. Who were the patriots during the war with Viet Nam?  Was it the people of that country who had decided upon the way they had chosen to live, or was it my country’s government which was supporting a despotic family of elites whose only association with us was that they were not communists?
I was in Cuba during the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.  My government felt it was my patriotic duty to defend that regime.  The people of Cuba felt differently.  Who were the patriots?  Who the traitors?  How can a U.S. Citizen be a patriot when the citizenry of a country not his or her own demands change?

But today I’d like to talk about the two wars of independence waged on this continent.  Yes; our TWO civil wars and the way those who write history have treated them.  And how the definition of who were patriots and who were just misguided fanatics.

These two revolutionary wars had much in common. 
Allow me to describe the justifications given for these wars.  In both cases, dissatisfaction with the prevailing government was the trigger.  Allegations of unfair imposition of taxes and regulations stirred the pot.  Interference with prevailing cultures helped raise the temperature. And in each case one portion of an established way of life was being challenged.
And yes, when searching for a noble cause worth sending soldiers to die for, all one had to do was find any morally plausible justification, and to trigger that noble feeling known as patriotism.  In both cases, YES, BOTH!  The enslavement of human beings provided some, but decidedly not all, of the rationale.

Some British Colonists were feeling oppressed by the central government in London.  American products were being cheaply exported to England, and conversely British goods coming to North America were becoming more and more expensive because of high import taxes.  So, was the Boston Tea Party the real and singular cause of the revolution?  Or was part of the uprising due to England, finally heeding the commitment to human rights outlined and hailed in the Magna Carta beginning to threaten the slave based economy of the Colonies?  Whatever the reasons, there were three distinct sets of opinions in North America.  We WERE a part of the British Empire.  A large segment of our population felt loyal patriotism to the King…they were LOYALISTS, and  their patriotism was to their government.  As always, there were those who either had no opinion, or chose to remain silent.  And, as we know, there was a group of rebels who determined that, whether their reasons were valid or just self serving, it was time to secede from the British Empire.  (We now refer to that latter group as ‘the founding fathers,’  and in what many at the time considered an act of treason, that particular war was triggered.  Were the colonists who were loyal to the established government of Britain patriots?  Or were the rabble rousing disloyal rebel British subjects the true patriots?  What about the thousands of British Soldiers who died for their country?  Well, as Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors,” and we all learned in elementary school who were the true patriots, and who were not.  And when the bombs ceased, and the British surrendered, there was a foundling nation in the Western Hemisphere.  And among other consequences of that war, our noble founding fathers were able to take a deep breath, secure in the knowledge that they would be able to keep their slaves.  And they did so for another ninety years.

So the years passed, and the northern part if the United States of America was becoming a fledgling world economic and manufacturing power.  At the same time, the south was providing much of the agricultural bounty required to not only feed a good portion of the country, but to furnish the raw materials the north needed to fuel the emerging manufacturing behemoth of the north. And, not unlike the British policies to the colonies, it was the North that dictated the prices paid to the South for the raw materials.  And, many, especially in the North, were calling for an abolition of slavery…which would further effect the economy of the South.

So, of course, just as the Colonists had done in 1776, citizens of a country determined that it was no longer tenable to remain with the established government.  And in less than a century, for a second time, a portion of the established nation seceded.

Depending on your mindset, both of those wars were either to preserve a legitimate established government on the one hand, or to fight for freedom of oppression on the other.  The causes of those wars were similar.  The stated rationale for them nearly identical.

So, who WERE the patriots?  American history seems to have it both ways.  The British subjects who finally overthrew their government and established a new nation are now listed as “patriots.”  What about the British Loyalists who wished to preserve the Empire?  Round one: Rebels win.  Loyalists lose.  Rebels: patriotic.  Loyalists cruel.

The Civil War, in spite of the similarities of purpose, is treated somewhat differently.  Who WERE those patriots?  The preservers of the established government?  Or the Confederate States seeking to break from the Union?  Again; History is written by the victors.  Unionists, PATRIOTS…Rebels TRAITORS.

 While as an American Citizen, I must say that I am a somewhat distant and remote product of those two wars, whether we call them both REVOLUTIONARY wars or CIVIL wars.  I think Both could be easily labeled as either.

But what of those who participated?  On either side? My conclusion is that those politicians and generals and foot soldiers not only CONSIDERED themselves patriots, but they by definition were patriots.  They were true to a cause and proud of the cause.  It is easy to simplify, as did that Civil War Battle Song we sang a few minutes ago, and to vilify the “other side.”  But in comparing the two, both were unquestionably wars of independence.  No matter how they turned out, and no matter how the fiction of written history treats them,  that’s what they were.

I think that to relegate the word patriotism into the sole sphere of nationalistic pride, especially in time of war, is to overlook the many forms which true patriotism takes. 

Those who know me would never suspect me of being what is often called a “super patriot.”  That term has been pirated by those who’s motto is “My Country Right or Wrong,” or “We are the moral standard for the world,”  “Proud to be an American,”  “America First,” or, yes, “Let’s just rally round the flag.”

I guess I think of patriotism differently.  I am very happy, and I think fortunate, to have been born and lived my life in America.  I don’t think I can necessarily say I’m PROUD to have had that experience… I had nothing to do with the random confluence of time and geography which enabled that to happen.

If I have reason to be proud to be an American, it is because of the things this country is able to do, and the good it contributes to the planet upon which it and we reside.  And sometimes it is easy to overlook the positive contributions my country has made. 

But to me, true patriotism is not just being immersed in the justice and humanity of America. me Patriotism is the willingness also to see the flaws.  And importantly, to make the effort to correct those flaws.  If one is to have patriotic pride in our nation’s good works, isn’t it our individual responsibility to rcognize and to attempt to right the wrongs?  It has taken another hundred years and still counting to atone for the moral pestilence of slavery.  Yes…still counting.  The remnants are withering but not gone.

I grew up during WW2.  This country was united in patriotic fervor during that conflict.  And we were encouraged to view our enemies, not just the GOVERNMENTS, but their citizens as barely human, and to be deeply vilified as sub human; all  in the name of patriotism.  I wonder what would have been the reaction of someone had predicted in 1943 that in less than 100 years our closest allies would be Germany and Japan?

For me personally, I don’t think I ever had as intense a feeling of patriotism as I did that day just over eight  years ago when our first African American President was sworn in.  My chest swelled with pride that day, and I felt like announcing to all the naysayers in America and around the world;  “YES WE CAN! WE HAVE OVERCOME! SEE WHAT THIS NATION CAN DO!  My chest swelled with pride.

Eight years later…Same words, different reaction. SEE WHAT THIS NATION CAN DO! My sense of patriotism has turned from pride and euphoria to resistance and sadness.  But while it has taken on new form and meaning, it still IS patriotism.
I never have been comfortable with the phrase “My Country Right or Wrong.”  But I am now much clearer as to why.

We have, in the name of patriotism, done many things which to make us deserving of the word.  I don’t think it’s wise or productive to forget those deeds.  And while war seems to be the magnifying glass which focuses that emotion, If we look back at our history by any objective standard, what we viewed as patriotism and national pride in many cases has turned out to be something far less deserving of those lofty accolades.  And if in fact that WAS patriotism, and we excuse ourselves for having been manipulated, how can we then be willing to ascribe evil motives to what others did in the name of THEIR patriotism?

And as UU’s who believe in our seven principles, do we assume the absolute right to question the motives of those who are of other minds?  Are we that all knowing and more, all self righteous to make those judgments?

I have come to the very presumptuous conclusion that if patriotism to a cause or a country or to a creed or religion is to have value, that result is not accomplished through mindless acceptance.  Blind obedience it the antithesis of true patriotism.  Critical thinking, rational evaluation and  protest:  All are necessary elements of the true manifestations and exercise of patriotism.

The concept of ‘patriotism’ is an extremely plastic one.  The very idea conjures positive and comfortable feelings.  But it is those very attributes that make the word susceptible to manipulation…especially in time of war or real or perceived national peril.  And we see it constantly.  Buzz phrases like ‘America First,’ ‘Illegal Immigrants .’ or ‘Radical Islam’ take what may be a tiny yet real problem and engender a combination of Nationalism,  fear and hatred.  I think that the true patriot will challenge and resist those false calls to irresponsible action.  I hope so.

I’d like to close with two famous quotes from our founders.  I’ve selected these because they made me realize just how conflicted those men must have been.  Both seem to recognize that the colonists were taking the risk of going down in history as traitors to their country.

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin said; “We must, indeed, all hang together, or, must assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”  Did Franklin’s words acknowledge that in signing  that  in document called the Declaration of Independence, they were about to commit  treason?

We all know that Thomas Paine was a prime voice in favor of the revolution, In 1775 Paine penned those words: “These are the times that try men’s souls.  The Summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women.”
Couldn’t those stirring words be equally applied to the British Loyalist as appropriately as to the rebellious colonist?
Further evidence that Paine might have been experiencing some inner confliction, he also wrote several letters to King George of England, and signed them; “Your friend, enemy and countryman.”  Am I the only one who senses that Paine might possibly be questioning his own enthusiasm for the revolution.  But that’s probably just me over thinking it. 
So, Anyway, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our nation once more,  I beseech you: Enjoy the the flag…listen to the stirring music…incinerate to taste unhealthy, chemically enhanced food. Don’t drive drunk..buckle your seat belts.  It’s the PATRIOTIC thing to do!  And of course……..

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