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Thinking through patriotism

Patriotic sentiment is everywhere. But what does the explosion of expression since Sept. 11 mean?

Two professors, a high school teacher, and a college senior talked last week with the Monitor about flags, solidarity, and how issues of patriotism are playing out around them:

CHAU HUA, a senior majoring in English and economics at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.: I used to work across the street [from the World Trade Center], and I have a lot of good friends there who were affected by the attacks. The weekend after it happened I went down, and what I saw was an enormous display of solidarity and patriotism; people had flags on windows, on the homes, on their cars.... When I came back to Boston, I didn't feel that sense of solidarity. I was really disappointed.

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JOHN PIERSON, an English teacher at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis: I think the fervor that was felt has certainly faded. My sense of our students is that

they have gone pretty much back to worrying about the things they might have been worrying about anyway.

James Fraser, professor of education and history and dean of the School of Education at Northeastern University, Boston: I saw two very distinct phases: The first was in the immediate aftermath. There was a lot of sense of patriotism; all that was a way of being in solidarity. I don't think I've sung "America the Beautiful" in 30 years, and I sang it multiple times. Once the bombing started in Afghanistan, there was a dramatic shift in what patriotism meant. In two [Northeastern] dorms facing each other, one has a large sign saying "War is not the answer," and in the facing window [there's] a sign, "War is the answer."

On who and what defines patriotism:

James Fraser: There has been a bit of a return to the idea that patriotism is in the hands of the people who support the government and who support the military action, and those of us who have real reservations about the government military action have gotten back into a more familiar discomfort with patriotism. It's not what it was before Sept. 11. There are more flags and more willingness to identify as patriotic Americans than I ever saw on a college campus since the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Carolyn Marvin, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: The thing about patriotism is that it is ... bearing witness to the idea that the nation itself is a moral community, or that you belong to a moral community. For those people who think in this case that the nature of the moral obligation is that there should be fighting in Afghanistan, then something goes forward. But for those who think that the moral obligation might be different, there's not a lot to do ... at the moment. There always has to be the renewal of gestures and feelings....

James Fraser: What I'm seeing is this split around patriotism. That first week - I don't remember since before Vietnam that I felt so much solidarity as an American, and I got e-mails from several people from outside the country that were sort of condolences to me, as the symbolic American that they knew. With the war, I feel that has begun to change. For people who support the war, there's something to do: You can wave the flag, support the president. For those - and it's a large split in the Northeastern student body - who have real reservations about the military policy, what do we do? If we do service or wear a flag, are we endorsing something we don't want to be endorsing? It starts to get much murkier.... I don't want to go back to where I was in August, saying, patriotism is someone else's thing, they can have the flag, it's not mine. I think that what I'm reflecting in my uncertainty is something I perceive in others.

John Pierson: In the first days [at my school] ... the seniors were having a very different experience than seventh-graders. There was an incredible zeal that engulfed our campus for a few days. Right out of the chute, there was a certain discomfort for some people before it had even gone to a dissenting camp and a supporting camp; there were those who wanted to process their emotions more slowly, who felt uncomfortable doing so.

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I know I was quite struck to see our students respond. For example, the Friday following the attack was red, white, and blue day at the school, and all the students came dressed in red, white, and blue. On the one hand, it was quite moving, and on the other, I couldn't help thinking that a few weeks later was going to be our version of a homecoming week, Spirit Week. The Friday of that week is blue and gold day, the school colors, and all students come dressed in blue and gold. I couldn't help wondering how many of the students were caught up in patriotism in a way that was not at all dissimilar from the Spirit Week....

In looking at the school as a microcosm, I was wondering how many of [the students] were doing it because they'd been told that the next day was red, white, and blue day. They weren't terribly sure why they were doing it, they just knew it was the thing to do.

On students' need for discussions:

John Pierson: There were discussions at a number of levels. The first round started sporadically, informally, as the news broke. Students wanted to know what we thought, wanted to know what to do next. That led into a series of more-focused discussions in classrooms. Then there was the third tier of that: Our school has "sound off," which is an open invitation for a student to take the microphone at any assembly and speak on a particular issue. For the next week to 10 days, there were a number of those addresses taking a variety of sides on a variety of issues.

James Fraser: If you look at the run-up to World War I and World War II, increasingly, patriotism meant shut up about dissent, don't ask questions ... and then in the aftermath, the Red scare. What it meant to be a good American got narrowed dramatically, and the whole notion that part of being a good American is somebody who speaks out,... that was really made unacceptable in the name of patriotism. So, there was certainly in the back of my mind the question, are we running up that hill again, and if so, I want to be more part of stopping it than of supporting it.

On a thoughtful patriotism:

Carolyn Marvin: What's interesting is the fact that the White House or the president said there ought to be limits to jingoistic mentality,... the Supreme Court said by a very narrow margin it will be legal to burn flags, it said by a very narrow margin that compulsory pledges of allegiance will not be required. It was not the government in the late 19th century that brought patriotic practices into the schools, but popular, voluntary groups that put pressure on schools.

Chau Hua: I don't really see jingoistic patriotism as being problematic. I think if anything, seeing the flag is an ideal, and not necessarily just the triumph of our country. I think being patriotic includes knowing why you're patriotic, expressing that when you feel it's needed, and questioning it as well.... I don't think my patriotism has necessarily waned [since the bombing started]. I don't necessarily advocate nor condemn the actions, but I still stand behind the ideal of our country. I understand, yes, we've committed egregious mistakes in the history of our nation, but I'm proud that we have the democracy and the unity that I value in freedom. Patriotism means taking the good with the bad, and questioning and disagreeing.

John Pierson: That's reflected in a younger version by our students. I was interested to see how saddened they were in reflecting on and showing some healthy doubt about what they were told and heard. I was starting to see, within a couple of weeks, the students doing a great deal of thinking on their own. Particularly on that first day, when quite a few seniors - who had a strong sense that they were about to go into the real world - knew that this is the world they were entering. They cornered me, and asked what I thought as an adult. The best I could come up with was: You're going to hear a lot of things from a lot of people, and it's all going to make sense, and whatever it is you think, just really try to think for yourself. And know that when you feel the strongest, it is probably most important then to think the hardest.

James Fraser: Those of us who have some reservations need to be less focused on our reservations and more focused on arguing that that is the definition of patriotism, including that celebration of freedom, including the freedom to think for ourselves.

Carolyn Marvin: I think one of the reasons that people get nervous about patriotism is that it really isn't about individual thinking for yourself, it's about a group. I don't want to make patriotism an individualistic kind of thing, except that we celebrate the kind of individualism in patriotism that serves the group ultimately. I think a really fundamental level of patriotism ... is the idea that it's a public witness to that group obligation. There's a kind of reverential patriotism that you see in draping the casket of the soldier with the flag,... and then there's a lighthearted patriotism that you see in advertising, in movies ... which is beautiful and imaginative and has its place.... What are the avenues that Americans have for understanding themselves as Americans? One is knowing this common vocabulary, which does not commit us to any particular course of action.

On waving the flag:

Carolyn Marvin: The flag is being used cheaply, and that's fine, and reverentially, and that's fine. The flag is not language, and if it's not, then we can have it as a common symbol, and not be disagreeing with each other, and there's some utility to that. We're a group with problems to solve; that seems to me the most important thing about the possibility of patriotism. We have many identities ...; all those have their own particular problems, but some sets of problems have to be solved at a national level. So let the flags fly, in any form: dismembered, cut up, rearranged.... What is valuable is, there's a plurality of flags.... It gives some opportunity to remind ourselves that we're connected in spite of our differences.

James Fraser: I partly disagree. One example is the car that's parked near my house that has two flags flying and a sign across the back that says, "God Bless America" and "Nuke 'em." I keep wanting to go and say, you have to make a choice. You can't fly a flag and say that, because that's not what this democracy is about. It feels to me that that's a wrong use of the flag, and if we're going to try to define patriotism as having some sense of decency and democracy about it, then some of that has to be challenged. That's a direct violation of what that flag is about.

Carolyn Marvin: That guy is part of the democracy too. He's willing to say in public what he thinks. If no one challenges him, then he won't know there's a challenge out there. But I don't want to have a patriotism that doesn't let that guy be part of the conversation.

James Fraser: I don't want to silence that person, but I don't want him to be able to define the nature of patriotism.

Chau Hua: [A friend asked me] what it would mean if every single house had a flag at its window.... I think individuals need to define patriotism for themselves. Part of the problem of patriotism today is that it's not sincere. It's just being taught, but it's not being understood. I live with three girls at Tufts, and I asked them if they considered themselves patriots. And interestingly enough, the two of us that are first-generation [Americans] said yes, we do. The two that weren't said no. I questioned them as to why. And they said, well, we've taken everything for granted.

On 'teaching' patriotism:

John Pierson: This is an independent school, so there aren't certain mandates. There's not a Pledge of Allegiance mandate.... There is a flag that flies in the quadrangle of the school, and it's a traditional job of the seventh-graders, who are divided into groups, and each group is responsible for raising that flag at the beginning of the school day and lowering it at the end of the school day. They are instructed in proper flag etiquette....

As far as the teaching of patriotism, I think it's similar to a discussion we've been having in the faculty about teaching ethics. We want an understanding of what an ethical life means, but woven into our dealing with various disciplines. I think some sort of mandate to teach patriotism to a greater extent would be problematic in the same way that pursuing a canned ethics curriculum would be problematic. Which would go back to my contention that I think patriotism is fundamentally a personal and individual sensibility, and I'm not sure individual sensibilities can be taught.

Carolyn Marvin: You can teach the vocabulary of national identity. And I think running even very small children through an acquaintance with national symbols, so they hear about Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July, and the flag, and the ceremony of taking the flag up and down ... is actually socializing children to an identity and a tradition that doesn't mean they won't be critical, political citizens later on.... It would be unfortunate to banish the pledge or flag that help people participate in the being of a group. I don't think it should be compulsory, but there's a place for conveying the symbols that get used in patriotic formats.

John Pierson: I agree, certainly with young children, a basic introduction is needed: Here's the flag, what does it mean, what's its history, how's it used. And for an older student to take on an open-ended essay topic - what is patriotism - I think that's a great essay topic. I would be rather curious to read that essay, because I think there would be a lot of people who haven't thought through that for themselves until now....

James Fraser: I would argue that we have done patriotism badly in two different ways. You get this pendulum between what I'd call a relatively unthinking patriotism where we salute the flag, we talk about "God Bless America," which can almost slide into "God Favors America," and you add to that, particularly with adolescents, the desire to conform, and you've got a pretty powerful brew that can be very dangerous. On the other hand, we react, and say we're not going to do that anymore, and we get this incredible individualism - which is the critique a lot of us had about America in general in the 1980s and part of the '90s.

I think what we're talking about here is a kind of a patriotism that says it's important that we're part of something larger than ourselves that we really value. You can start very young with discussions about: What is Jefferson really complaining about in the Declaration of Independence; what does it mean to have liberty and justice for all?; and as kids get older, to play that out in more detail, and to attend to the dissenters as well as the war heroes. So I'm increasingly now wanting to argue for more patriotism, but a much more thoughtful and reflective and individually challenging kind of patriotism.

On modeling democracy:

James Fraser: Not surprisingly, the greatest debates in American education right now are about what are the standards for the history curriculum: Whose history gets told, how do you do it? Do you tell mainline history, or that of people who got left out, and include dissenting voices as a critical part of it? The other issue is, to what degree does the school in its own structure model democracy? There is something absurd about sitting kids down in rows and lecturing to them about how they have to be democratic citizens later on.

John Pierson: I think students in these situations are always instinctively riled when there's a moment in which, for example, the school charges [the student government] with making a particular decision, and it makes it, and [the decision] perhaps doesn't match what the school had hoped the student government was going to decide, and quickly turns it over. That'd be a good example of bad modeling.

Chau Hua: One of the reasons I'm so patriotic is that I know what my parents have been through. They were immigrants from Vietnam ... boat people who took a terrifying five-day journey by boat to Malaysia. They came to this country and found opportunity, and I think that what they really wanted was to know [that] if they worked really hard, they could get somewhere. In the same vein, I've had opportunity.... I went to public school, and we did have to say the pledge and the "Star Spangled Banner," and I think that was enormously valuable, because the values that I cherish today are largely the ones I learned as a child. I think having had those shows of patriotism as a child created norms in our society.

When you say, there should be more patriotism in schools, I agree, because I wonder what it would say to our society if we didn't have that. Would it say, it's fine not to be proud to be an American?

Carolyn Marvin: There are lots of sources of patriotism display besides the schools. Art does it; it's all over the movies. Besides that, you have voluntary organizations, like the Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, and Kiwanis, and there's patriotic display there. So that's a different form. Then you have official patriotism. Then there is advertising.

I came from a generation that said the pledge and sang the "Star Spangled Banner," and then opposed the government and our parents. So you can't be sure what the outcome will be. But I'm not sorry I had that set of symbols to call on. I don't think we can assume what we'll get out of that is a particular patriotic posture.

I remember [during the civil rights movement] a photo of an African-American boy and some white sheriff standing across from him.... The boy had the flag in his hand, and the white official was trying to rip it away from him. The flag became one of the things the civil rights movement used. Even the antiwar movement subverted the flag and used it ... for example, as a peace symbol. It's easy to forget that in fact the left has also made use of the flag, very powerfully. The assumption that the flag belongs to those who are militaristic is not always accurate historically.

On this point in history:

James Fraser: I think it's too soon to tell [if we're at a turning point]. A lot will have to do with how this rolls out.... I hear a lot of students and faculty and friends in my neighborhood and church asking questions they weren't asking before. That could all subside and by the first of the year, it's back to business as usual.

Chau Hua: I don't think it's necessarily a turning point, but it's creating an immense reference point for reflection.

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