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A 'good' American citizen: A sacred opinion?

A critical national conversation about dissent is needed.

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Recently, I passed an antiwar protest in Center City Philadelphia, a mix of young and old, office workers and students, patting drums to the rhythm of their rap. A moment later, a pickup truck filled with guys clad in bluejeans drove by, waving the American flag and yelling, "Go, America!" Passersby cringed as they tensely viewed the scene and caught a glimpse of the hundred police officers monitoring the drama from across the street.

This "we vs. we" conflict is uncomfortable. Even US leaders seem more focused on middle ground rather than finding ways to disagree more productively. But there is a critical conversation America has yet to have with itself. And with the ongoing dissension over the war with Iraq, it appears that now is the perfect time.

Definitions of what qualifies as national loyalty have always shifted as American society has diversified and matured. A person who is viewed by many as a troublemaker, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., just might end up an honored US hero.

So what defines a patriot, exactly? Is it a person who supports the government through right and wrong in a war or a crisis, or the person who disagrees loudly and engages in lawful protest? Are those who push us all to conform and unite as one country the folks who most love this nation, or is it those who embrace differences and challenge fellow citizens' assumptions in order to reorder society and find hidden flaws?

There is no national handbook - at least not yet - that details how to be a good American. Some would prefer a manual filled with "dos" and "don'ts" to point to and say, "I'm the real deal and you are the pretender."

So it seems for the moment, each person is left to follow his or her own set of personal rules regarding patriotism, even though those lists are bound to disagree. The first few rules on my own list are simple:

1. Vote in every federal, state, and local election even when you can't find one candidate you like.

2. Learn the names of elected officials, and e-mail them periodically to offer insight. (Most of mine are white, and I am African-American.)

3. Attend community or council meetings and stay abreast of public policy and key issues by reading newspapers, listening to the radio, or watching the evening TV news.

4. Model the behavior you want to see in others: Put democratic principles into practice by challenging bias and discrimination in everyday life.

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