So What's It Mean to Be A Patriot These Days?

Culture Watch

Mr. Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St Martin's Press, and three other books on citizen involvement.

It's been almost a year since Sept 11, but the flags remain. They decorate our clothing, cars, and houses, to convey a sense of common spirit in a land now feeling vulnerable and threatened. Bush officials play on these sentiments, insisting that true patriots don't question. The anthem of Bush-style patriotism, Lee Greenwood's"God Bless the USA," was actually written during the Cold War (back in 1985). Reagan made it his campaign theme while his advisors were backing the Nicaraguan Contras as anti-Communist"freedom fighters" and men like Osama bin Laden. The song has now been resurrected for a new fight —- one against invisible enemies, and one which we're told may last our lifetimes. Greenwood climbed onto the World Trade Center rubble to sing it for rescue workers. September 11 pushed his decade-old"American Patriot" album back onto the charts. And a recent AOL poll ranked"God Bless USA" above all other patriotic songs, including"God Bless America" and"The Star-Spangled Banner."

Greenwood's song begins with the specter of loss—-"If tomorrow all the things were gone, I'd worked for all my life/ And I had to start all over with my children and my wife." Then the wounds disappear before they're felt:"I'd thank my lucky stars to be living here today/ Because the flag still stands for freedom and they can't take that away."

Companies may be laying off workers by the thousands, while their CEOs grab ever more. We may end up on the street with the kids crying, the bills unpaid, and our retirement burned through by Enron and WorldCom. But these are mere inconveniences amid blessings that redeem all possible losses, uniting rich and poor. As the refrain shifts from violins and a church organ to a military march, Greenwood repeats,"I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free/ And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me."

Let's respect those, like the World War II soldiers, who fought in wars that had no alternative. We could use their spirit of sacrifice in a time where greed too often trumps community. Yet cherishing those who've bled for native soil gives us no special grace over citizens of other lands. And because Greenwood says nothing about what freedom might demand of us, it becomes just an empty phrase that sanctifies whatever we do—no matter how much our actions evoke that classic sin that the Greeks called hubris and the Bible called pride. We must be right, because God loves America.

We were defending freedom, according to this view, when supporting dictators like Augusto Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, and the succession of Persian Gulf autocrats who helped turn bin Laden against us. We were defending freedom when the Bush administration gave $43 million to the Taliban early last year, a few months before Sept 11th. We're defending freedom when the Justice Department recruits our friendly postman, meter reader, or cable technician to report on what we do, say, and read. When Greenwood sings,"There ain't no doubt I love this land. God Bless the USA," he never suggests what qualities of justice would redeem the love he declaims. He just says we need to be proud.

Greenwood wrote the song following the U.S. retreat from Lebanon and Reagan's invasion of Grenada, to reflect"the spirit of America being proud." It rose to a top-five country hit, and both the Democrats and Republicans invited him to sing it at their respective conventions. Greenwood turned them both down due to scheduling conflicts. But after letting Reagan staffers use"God Bless The USA" to frame their l8-minute campaign film, he began singing it at Republican rallies.

But Greenwood's is not the sole patriotic ballad to choose from. The late Waylon Jennings'"America" reached number six on the charts the year"God Bless the USA" first came out. Written by Sammy Johns, the song affirms connection to native soil, as Jennings repeats,"America, America" slowly and tenderly as though to a woman he loves. Then he admits, softly,"You've become a habit to me." But he also makes tough demands--recounting his own history as an Anglo yeoman"from down round Tennessee," then continuing,"But my brothers/ Are all black and white/ Yellow too/ And the red man is right/ To expect a little from you/ Promise and then follow through/ America."

Honoring promises of justice gives us problems. Our culture too often gives them lip service, then dismisses them by explaining,"We're sorry. This is the future. Get used to it." Yet we're stronger for respecting common ties, even if they raise difficult questions. Echoing Walt Whitman's poems of Brooklyn blacksmiths and welders, Jennings celebrates"all the men who build the big planes/ And who live through hardship and pain." But he also honors those"who would not fight/ In a war that didn't seem right," and a nation strong enough so"you let them come home." Once more questions are raised, about a past that's no longer so clean. He judges us wiser for respecting those who challenged their government—and might once again.

Because Greenwood says only that living in America makes us free, his message feeds what historian Christopher Lasch once called"the minimal self"--with patriotism reduced to pledging allegiance. Only malcontents or ex-Enron employees might question our blindly delegating our most important national choices. Instead of creating a standard by which we can judge our leaders and hold them accountable, Greenwood writes a blank check for whatever they choose to do.

Waylon's song, in contrast, is no political manifesto. Just a ballad celebrating the diverse and contradictory land he calls"my home sweet home." But his"America" respects the difficult, unsettling questions and deems us wiser for heeding the dissenters too often dismissed. He suggests true greatness does not flow, like automatic grace, from the now concrete-paved soil of our land—but is fulfilled when we choose those hard choices that honor common responsibility and connection.

Maybe this is indeed a time to stand together, but we can still decide which kind of patriotism we embrace. Greenwood's song is once again being cast as a vision for all America. The one sung by Waylon, now forgotten, asks something more. We should take as our ballads those that demand the most of us.

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don kates - 8/23/2002

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I have no moral problem with the U.S. allying itself with Stalin, Chiang kai-Shek, and all of Mr. Loeb's 50 dictators. These alliances were either right or wrong depending entirely on the individual circumstances. That is why I did not get myself backed into a corner like Mr. Loeb who actually suggests that there was some moral problem of allying with 50 dictators who were "enemies of democracy" UNLIKE allying with good old Joe Stalin, which Mr. Loeb supports though old Joe who just happened to kill far more than 50 times more innocent people than all Mr. Loeb's 50 dictators combined, not to mention being a far worse enemy of democracy.
The sensible position asks whether an alliance with an evil power is likely to avert a greater evil than not allying. (By that standard, incidentally, there are grave problems w/ an alliance Mr. Loeb thoughtlessly accepts, our alliance with Chiang against Japan. What business of ours was it whether China was ruled by brutal Chinese Nationalists, or Chinese Communists or Japaneser. Why did we not just let them fight it out, rather than UNNECESSARILY intervening?)
I was entirely too kind to Mr. Loeb in dismissing his article as just a simple-minded, muddle headed attempt to deal with problems far more difficult than he has been able to think through.

Bob Denham - 8/22/2002

Aw, come on, Mr. Lib. When it’s so obvious that a simple song can define the dividing line of opinion in our country, as a supposed historian writing on a supposed historical-oriented web-site, the better question to ask might be, why is it?

Why does this one song separate the openly-loving Americans from those that don’t love it so openly? It’s pretty clear that Mr. Lib despises this song and he does a pretty fair job of explaining that the reason he does so despise it is because his patriotism is better than mine.

I know folks of all stripes who like Waylon Jennings’ America. But it seems that only those from one side of the fence like and sing Greenwood’s. Mr. Lib’s editing of the lyrics leave out a crucial line about America, about how I “would gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.” But it just doesn’t fit his argument and all us mindless robots who sing it.

There’s a reason why this song is so popular. There’s a reason why the most singable and memorable line, “I’m proud to be an American” is also the one that is the most vocalized at football games and flag-wavings. Most of us really aren’t ashamed to be seen loving America. Mr. Lib, of course, is, thus he is reduced to equating the singing of “I’m proud to be an American” with accepting dishonesty (Enron officials) and revising cold War history.

No thanks, Mr. Lib. I love our America. And I’m not ashamed to sing about it.

Paul Loeb - 8/21/2002

I did indeed list a long list of right wing dicatators America has supported: Augusto Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, and a succession of Persian Gulf autocrats. I could have cited 50 more, but didn't for reasons of space.

Sometimes, as in World War II, we may have to ally with nasty leaders. But more often in the past fifty years, the people we've supported have themselves been the enemies of democracy. Blind patriotism of the kind supported by Greenwood's song isn't useful. I mentioned the Waylon Jennings song as an alternative, because it encourages us to ask the real questions about which choices are wise and which are not. That's a hell of a lot more helpful that automatic cheerleading.
Paul Loeb
Author Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time

Jerry Bitts - 8/19/2002

I see bumber stickers that say "Proud to be an American." I wonder what they are so proud of? The car owners probably were born here, and probably didn't even have to pass a test to become a citizen. Maybe the drivers served honorably in the millitary, but that is not always valued either; you can go AWOL for a year and still get to be president. I think we are taught from an early age that we have such a good system that everything will work out well in the end. This produces an apathetic attitude. If you are teachers (I am a retired English teacher) of the social sciences, it is imparitive that the fragile nature of our constitutional freedoms be communicated. Patriotism is defending the Constitution.

don kates - 8/19/2002

Greenwood's song is acceptable because songs are supposed to be simple-minded and emotionalistic. Mr. Loeb's essay is not acceptable because essays are not supposed to exhibit those qualities. It would be at once excessive and excessively cruel to demolish in detail this exercise in hypocritically selective moralizing. Suffice it to just apply the argument Mr. Loeb offers to other situations which it fits perfectly but where neither he nor any other sensible person would apply them because doing so shows how intellectually unsophisticated the argument is.

Quoting Mr. Loeb exactly: "We [Americans] were defending freedom, according to this argument [simplistically presented in the song Mr. Loeb so deplores] when supporting dictators like...." [Here I delete the names of various right-wing tyrants Mr. Loeb abhors, and substitute] by supporting dictators like Joseph Stalin and Chang Kai-shek when we entered WWII and propped them up to fight the Nazis and the Japanese (respectively).

In the simple minded world of country music songs, and Mr. Loeb's essay. the world is a truly simple place where all the good guys are perfect, and all the bad guys perfectly awful, and all the former can and do line up together against all the latter. Would that it were so.