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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei, 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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What makes an authentic patriot? -- ONE of the more serious -- but so-far little discussed -- questions raised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is about the nature of patriotism.

What does it mean to be patriotic? Is it just flying the American flag? Just singing "G-d Bless America" at every turn? Just voicing support for our national war on terrorism? If, in fact, patriotism does not go beyond those responses, it isn't worth much. I certainly am not suggesting flags and songs are wrong or silly. Not at all. But they're the frosting on the cake. Real patriotism runs deeper. It's multilayered and not merely a short list festooned with reds, whites and blues and set to a rousing Sousa march.

If patriotism is just waving the flag, then Samuel Johnson was right that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And, worse, Guy de Maupassant was right that "patriotism is the egg from which wars are hatched."

What we must understand in this nervous time, this wounded time when everyone is rallying around the flag, is that patriotism, properly understood, is a necessary virtue. But patriotism distorted -- as it was in the Vietnam War era phrase "America, love it or leave it" -- is no virtue at all.

My own short list of what makes up patriotism certainly isn't exhaustive, but I don't see how it's possible to claim to be a patriot without these characteristics. A patriot: Is well informed. And not just about current events but also about history.

One does not get well informed by relying on one source of information. If, for instance, you get your news solely from television, there's no possible way to be well versed. And your sources of information should represent different points of view. If, for instance, your newspaper's editorial page tends to be conservative, also read a publication that tends to be liberal in its editorial positions.

I don't think it's unpatriotic not to be able to name all the presidents in perfect order. But patriotism does require knowledge of the broad sweep of both national and world history. If, for example, you don't know approximately when the Civil War was fought and -- more to the point -- why, it's hard to imagine how you can process today's events and draw lucid conclusions about public policy.

Registers and votes. The level of voter registration and participation in elections in America is a shameful scandal. Patriots vote. It's the very lowest threshold of citizenship. Other patriots died so we all could go to the polls. Each time we skip that civic duty for anything but emergencies, we dishonor their sacrifice. And patriots vote not just in presidential elections but in local and state contests -- including primaries.

Patriots also understand the issues and grasp where the candidates stand on them. They follow the debates, are up on the arguments, feel at least reasonably confident expressing an opinion because they have considered it carefully.

Praises and criticizes the government. I'm always stunned at how critical some people are of whatever the government does -- until a national crisis arrives. Then some of them brook no criticism at all, imagining it to be unpatriotic.

But the truth is that we don't defend our principles by abandoning them in crises. We don't honor freedom of speech by forbidding it. In good times and bad, we need to follow what our representatives are doing in our name and, if it's done well, praise them, but, if not, call them to account. It is not treason to disagree with the president. It can, however, be unpatriotic to silence dissident voices.

Are active in their communities. Patriots know who their neighbors are and care about their welfare. They volunteer for good causes. They donate money, property and time to help people in need.

They also support education, especially the public schools, understanding that a learned and educated citizenry is crucial to our republic.

Understand that people in other countries also can be patriotic without being a threat to our own nation. People in Taiwan, France, Colombia, Ghana and India may see the world differently than most Americans do. Patriots make room for such views without demonizing the people who hold them.

Patriotism requires more than waving Old Glory. If we don't understand that, we don't have much to defend.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved