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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2001 / 29 Tishrei 5762

Philip Terzian

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A patriot for me -- POOR Samuel Johnson.

The only one of his aphorisms nearly everybody knows -- "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" -- is not only widely misunderstood, but may never have been uttered at all: We are entirely reliant on James Boswell's word, in his famous Life. Johnson and his friends were dining and conversing in a tavern, it is said, when Johnson erupted. And Boswell saw fit to explain to startled readers that "he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest."

Since Sept. 11, we have been been contemplating patriotism more than usual, and considering what is and is not patriotic. Of course, many Americans bask in devotion to their country -- to lengths, some might say, that border on bigotry -- while others revel in contempt and disdain. Speaking to an antiwar gathering on the campus at Brown University, a local activist named Peter Zedrin is reported to have said that "I was cheering when the Pentagon got hit .... The American flag is nothing but a symbol of hate and should be used for toilet paper, for all I care."

Mr. Zedrin notwithstanding, many Americans have found that the events of Sept. 11 reawakened something dormant in their souls, or broadened their vision of what their country means to them. It is not easy to articulate such things, and most people don't try; but there is little question that something is in the air. Peril is bound to generate a sense of fellowship.

President Bush is enjoying stratospheric levels of popularity in public opinion -- not so much because people approve of his particular policies, but because he is our leader in a time of national crisis. Cars are festooned with American flags, signs and slogans are posted on bridges, the ghost of Kate Smith is belting "G-d Bless America."

And this being the United States in the early 21st century, all of this collides with the spirit of the age. Lehigh University banned displays of the American flag on campus in order, according to Vice Provost John Smeaton, "to keep from offending some of our students .... The message was supposed to be that we are sensitive to everyone." Bill Schrempf, the CEO of NCCI Holdings in Boca Raton, Fla., ordered all flags removed from employees' desks because "divisive statements or actions ... that could mean different things to different people are not appropriate in our work environment."

Meanwhile, atheists have enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union to help them contend with feelings of exclusion when public officials invoke the deity. Gail Pepin, a nonbeliever in Chicago, complains that "there's this big unity, but it's all under G-d." Says Ron Barrier, a spokesman for American Atheists Inc.: "We are essentially being left out ... of the grieving process simply because we will not let ourselves get emotionally involved with a supernatural cause and effect."

I know how Mr. Barrier feels, although for different reasons. That is why I have mixed feelings about the ban certain television networks have imposed on news readers who wish to wear American flag pins on their blouses or in their lapels while on camera. It is, to my way of thinking, a comparatively harmless gesture, and scarcely subverts their professional responsibility. I must admit, however, that I would be reluctant to wear such a pin myself.

This is not, I hasten to add, because I share Peter Zedrin's view of the flag -- which I am pleased to display at home on certain occasions -- but entirely for aesthetic reasons. American flag lapel pins emerged in the latter stages of the Vietnam war, and served as a kind of symbolic rebuke for the antiwar movement. Yet while I could appreciate the sentiments inspiring pins at the time, I could never quite avoid the thought that they were slightly absurd. This was particularly evident when the President would sport one. Could anyone doubt that Richard Nixon was president of the United States and not, say, Argentina? When George W. Bush appears in public wearing an American flag lapel pin, it is as if he has one of those "Hello! I'm" stickers affixed to his jacket.

I think we can recognize when people express a loathing for their country, such as one who exults in the death of innocent people. But displaying an affection for one's country takes different forms. Some are more comfortable with a kind of understated patriotism; others advertise their loyalty on their sleeve. It's a question of taste.

But to suggest that the emotions which impel a student to wave the flag on the Lehigh campus is "divisive," or complain when grieving people are moved to mention G-d, is to undermine the value and meaning of freedom, which allows us to express ourselves in various ways.

With apologies to Samuel Johnson, we are all scoundrels now.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal