Dear Mr. President: Words of Resistance, Reason, and Peace

Peace & Patriotism
Why the old formulas may not work this time
Loyalty doesn't mean suppression of dissent

By Vicki Haddock

October 14, 2001
San Francisco Chronicle

To italicize his fervor, the patriotic American plasters his car with four American flags. All is well until another driver pulls alongside -- with five flags. He suspiciously eyes the first driver's lesser display, then yells derisively, "Go back to Afghanistan!"

This apocryphal tale of patriotic oneupsmanship is told by "Politically Incorrect" TV host Bill Maher, poster child for the perils of appearing under- patriotic by agreeing with a conservative guest that suicide bombers aren't cowardly. But the reprobation Maher experienced is minuscule compared with the ostracism, harassment and abuse heaped upon Americans who in the past have refused to imbibe the heady patriotic passion.

When White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer rebuked Maher by warning that Americans "need to watch what they say," Berkeley historian Cecilia O'Leary said, "I got such a chill."

"The crucial question is: How does all this patriotic energy get channeled now that we've moved beyond grieving, now that we're actually bombing Afghanistan?" said O'Leary, the author of "To Die For: The Paradox of Patriotism."

"I think we're in a very dangerous moment where the lines of the more tolerant, diverse patriotism we've seen recently could harden. Intolerant patriotism hasn't won out yet. But it could, just as it has before when we've gone to war and been awash in so-called patriotism."

The patriotic swell in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is unmistakable. After a run on American flags, the Web site eBay now offers more than 42,000 flag-related items, from Jell-O molds to Chihuahua collars. Tattoo parlors are said to be deluged with Americans asking to be Starred-and-Striped forever. Popular Halloween costumes include Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty. And many a property owner from coast to coast is spray-painting the lawn with a flag motif.

Pop culture has joined the chorus. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau stopped cartooning George W. Bush as a featherweight. (As comedian Jay Leno wryly observed, "We all know President Bush is smart now.") Even the NBC peacock has been re-colored red, white and blue.

Nor is the Bay Area left out, in any sense. Petaluma's Tom and Kris Price had their Chevy SUV repainted into a mobile flag, and the emblem of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's shopping campaign "America: Open for Business" is a U.S. flag turned into a shopping bag.

Americans are embracing the flag as if it were the family crest of a clan in mourning. Those who once would have wrinkled their nose at the thought of flag waving -- Baby Boomer veterans of Vietnam War protests, intellectuals and sophisticates -- suddenly feel a patriotic tether to Old Glory.

They are reassuring themselves it was right to reclaim the flag from the stereotypical redneck in the pickup truck with the bumper sticker that says, "America -- Love It or Leave It."

But as the U.S. military last week began bombing terrorist targets in Afghanistan, some people began having qualms about whether flying the flag implied full endorsement of U.S. military strategy and the toast, "Our country, right or wrong."

"I hope we don't now make the flag into a marker of what side you're on," said Lawrence Grossberg, communications professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Even within the 90 percent of Americans who say they support military action are tremendous variations between the people who want carpet bombings versus those who want a restrained, surgical response. We need to have vigorous debate without anybody cornering the patriotism market."

The question has particular resonance for students of 20th century American history. When patriotism burns white hot, it can purify purpose, inspire heroic acts and hold together an extraordinarily diverse citizenry.

But it can also scorch dissenters without mercy.

World War I saw the arrest of an 11-year-old black child in Chicago who refused to pledge allegiance to the "flag of Jim Crow," the jailing of at least 1,500 people for "seditionist" remarks and mob beatings of neighbors who refused to publicly kiss the flag.

World War II triggered the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, mostly from the West Coast. The Korean War coincided with the anti-Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And during the Vietnam War, the FBI infiltrated, and in some cases sabotaged, anti-war groups.

Since Sept. 11, there have been outbreaks of "patriotism" run amok. Most harrowing was the murder of a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona by a gunman who allegedly explained his intent was to "get" Arabs and said, "I'm for America all the way."

Death threats greeted Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, after she cast the sole vote in Congress against broadening the presidential power to make war. Threats also hit dissenting academics such as George Wright, a California State University at Chico professor who complained that military action in Central Asia implied the killing of innocent people and colonization of the Arab world to get oil.

In Pennsylvania, Mennonite storekeepers, who don't stock flags because of their pacifism, have been harassed and boycotted. Legislators in Missouri are considering cutting funds for a university-owned TV station whose management asked journalists to demonstrate their objectivity by not wearing flag pins.

There is, of course, a difference between criticism of dissenters and harassment in an attempt to silence dissent. No one should deny the constitutional right to criticize Maher, Lee or Wright any more than others should be denied their chance to lambaste Jerry Falwell's odd suggestion that by its godlessness, the United States invited terrorist attack.

In a pluralistic democracy, the trick is to disagree -- even vociferously -- without resorting to threats or impugning the loyalty of others.

Patriotism risks becoming unpatriotic if it waves the logo of America Inc. while undermining the principles embodied by the flag, including free speech. Such false patriotism has been rightly defined as the last refuge of the scoundrel, the egg from which wars are hatched, the cult of groupthink.

"Patriotism should not require the suspension of critical judgment," says historian Jeffrey Pasley of the University of Missouri-Columbia. "True patriotism in the past has always been about sacrifice. Today we're being told to go shopping.

"At its best, patriotism calls people to move beyond their normal existence.

I think we're still grappling with what it means to be patriotic right now."

E-mail Vicki Haddock at


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