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BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 01, 2010 7:20 AM

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The Hawkeyes' quarterback, known for his über-patriotism almost as much as his impressive passer rating, most famously told a feckless TV reporter at this year's Orange Bowl, "There's nothing better than being American" and "If you don't love it, leave it." It was a humorous — if vacuous — display of patriotic fervor.

But Ricky Stanzi's recent comments further fleshing out his salute-the-flag-and-shut-up brand of patriotism were more troubling than his off-hand remark earlier this year. And they raise deeper questions about the substance and animating principles of American patriotism.

Stanzi recently told the Gazette his patriotism stems from his upbringing: "There was always an American flag hanging up in the house." He then went on to denigrate the "guys walking around in dresses" and the "hippies" that hang around the Pedestrian Mall. "There's the Ped Mall area down there, right in the middle. Those people are going nowhere. Those people are the people who don't like America," the senior quarterback said.

Stanzi also said, "The people who are doing things right and working hard, they don't complain because there's no point in complaining. When something happens to you, you take it on the chin and keep moving forward." (Stanzi apologetically turned down an interview with the Editorial Board, writing, "I am only allowed to take football-related interviews at this time.")

Most would agree patriotism isn't a bad thing. (Some radical leftists and libertarians interested more in univeralistic values than national boundaries would disagree.) Love for one's country is a bit like religion, though: It causes people to act both courageously and horrendously.

At its best, patriotism is a deep-seated love for the values and founding principles of one's country. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was a true patriot, rhetorically rooting his heroic fight against socioeconomic injustice and white supremacy in the basic precepts of American democracy. He didn't tell African Americans to "take it on the chin" or just "keep moving forward"; King marched, spoke, and went to jail to ensure blacks would be accorded the same rights as white citizens.

All too often, however, patriotism takes the opposite form, one of reflexive deference to one's government and unthinking nationalism. This variety of patriotism is the conviction that America is right because it's America. No further explanation is needed. This odious form often morphs into the dangerous jingoism that enables the worst tendencies of American foreign policy.

For his part, Stanzi's pro-America sentiment appears limited to trite sloganeering rather than civic engagement or critical thinking about the problems confronting the country. He even admitted he didn't vote in the most recent election in his Gazette interview.

And once you get past Stanzi's bromides, it's clear his Horatio Alger-esque perception of America is often illusory. Economic inequality has been growing for the last few decades in the United States, and intergenerational social mobility is lower in our country than the most other Western democracies.

It's also important to note Stanzi speaks from a position of societal privilege. Even before he was the starting quarterback for a Division I football team, Stanzi's status as a straight, white male guaranteed he would be subjected to few of the social and structural impediments that women, minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens often have to overcome.

Acknowledging this litany of uncomfortable facts isn't tantamount to hating America. It's simple intellectual honesty. Sure, American ideals of democracy, equality, and liberty should be venerated. But when reality runs counter to these admirable principles, our reaction shouldn't be to close our eyes and wave the American flag. Genuine patriotism is cerebral, not visceral.

America was founded on an ignominious incongruity: Blacks were enslaved, despite paeans to equality and freedom. This repugnant blemish ensured Americans would always have to fight for the true realization of the country's ineffable principles.

The chest-thumping patriotism that Stanzi embodies does little to further that goal.


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