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Patriotic dilemmas

BY WILL MATTESSICH | MAY 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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When is it OK to wave a flag?

As the discussion of whether Osama bin Laden's killing was legal intensifies, some columnists are still debating whether the celebrations after the event were appropriate. It's a fair question to wonder about the morality of the reveling, but I am alarmed at the tone taken by some authors, which seems to be based as much on their contempt for citizens displaying patriotism as it was on their disgust at a celebration of death. These opinions bring attention to a broader issue: American attitudes toward patriotism in general.

Ken Chen, at India's Tehelka, wrote that the event showed "the sickly Francis Bacon-style face of American nationalism" and wondered if the people celebrating knew about the death of Muammar Gaddafi's son and grandchildren in the same weekend. The Huffington Post's Locke Bowman decriedthe nation "puffing out its collective chest" and wrote about a "mostly young, mostly male, mostly white" crowd celebrating outside the White House, purposefully framing the issue in terms of a demographic that many see as impulsive and naïve.

Patriotism isn't always a good thing, as we've opined before at The Daily Iowan. It's true that some people take it too far. The tautological belief that America is great just because it's America is one that can hinder progress and lead to radical nationalism. It can be used to alienate people who are different from the majority and to declare dissenters to be "un-American."

Hollow, unquestioning patriotism based on overlooking our country's problems and ostracizing people outside the majority is harmful. Patriotism is only good if it's truly based on righteous ideals, just as any country is only good if its people work to make it so.

We certainly shouldn't hide behind the flag to avoid holding ourselves accountable for the atrocities America continues to commit, and we should never simply assume that our country has the moral high ground. Killing civilians and torturing prisoners are unacceptable actions for a culture considering itself to follow a path paved on principles, yet they are actions America has performed too often since Sept. 11, 2001. Our hands are by no means clean.

On the other hand, it disturbs me how eager some people are to pass judgment on their flag-waving countrymen. There is a section of the population that appears to think that any display of patriotism is never OK.

It's generally viewed as "uncool" to wear a shirt with a large American flag on it, and "God Bless America" bumper stickers often bring the word "hick" to the mouths of passersby. An attitude that condemns individuals who are proud of their national identity is just as divisive as an extreme, self-righteous belief in American exceptionalism.

How much of the Constitution does a baseball fan need to memorize before singing the national anthem at a game? What grades do high-school students need to get in American history to be allowed to wave a flag? Should we include caveats about abuses at Guántanamo, the Trail of Tears, and the Civil War at the end of "God Bless America?" Maybe every firework shot off on the Fourth of July should be aimed at an Air Force jet so we can bring down the military-industrial complex.

There sometimes seems to be a sentiment that displays of patriotism are performed by an unthinking mob that isn't intelligent enough to grasp the real nature of America and that we aren't allowed to celebrate a country that has made so many mistakes. A reluctance to ever be proud of our country is not a trait to be encouraged.

Although there are many problems we still need to solve, what threshold of "goodness" does our country need to cross before we can be proud of it? A refusal to celebrate our culture and values solely because of our shortcomings is just as harmful as shallow patriotism. Acknowledging America's flaws shouldn't preclude admiring America's achievements.


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