Since the events of Sept. 11, I have been chased by a question that refuses to give me rest. I find myself confronted by it when the torrents of daily life subside. I have lain awake at night pondering its possible answers. I have looked for an answer to my question in the pages of newspapers, in the words of commentators and experts on TV talk shows, and even in the faces and words of my fellow commuters on my daily subway rides.
What does it mean to be a patriot? Or put in a slightly different way, what does it mean to be patriotic?
It's a question that many find easy to answer in the days since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. I certainly understand the need to fight together against a foe that seeks to destroy America. But I find myself increasingly disturbed by the idea that being a patriot means keeping quiet about issues that bother you or not questioning anything the government does in order to pursue this common enemy. Does loving one's country mean not questioning the direction of one's country?
I realize that part of this quandry may come from growing up in Canada. I have never been a flag waver -- Canadians usually eschew that sort of display. They tend not to jump up and down about being Canadian (unless you put one in the US, where they tend to never stop jumping up and down about being Canadian). But we've not, as a culture, been given to broad displays of patriotic fervor. To this day, most Canadians remain a bit queasy at the over-the-top displays of American patriotism that arise in times like these.
But let's be honest. Americans could care less about what other people think of these displays. In fact, it's the American spirit of 'who gives a hoot' that I've come to so admire. It's part of what gives this country its spirit of openness, its creativity, and even its compassion.
Yet I still find myself uncomfortable with the popular notion of patriotism that is most often propounded by politicians and talk show hosts. To put it in the words of previous generations, "My country, right or wrong." Or the more visceral, "My country, love it or leave it."
The problem with these definitions is that, in many ways, they run contrary to the best interests of this nation. Any definition of patriotism that demands unquestioning loyalty, regardless of the situation, is a poor excuse for love of one's country, and an abrogation of the duties that we have as citizens of that country. Because sometimes the best kind of love is tough love. Without critical thought, without constant questioning of the motives of our leaders and the standards they use to make decisions, we will never discover the real things that are worth feeling patriotic about.
One of the most patriotic things a man or a woman can do is to take a stand against popular wisdom or public opinion, if he or she feel s it is in the best interests of the country, even if the country doesn't want to admit it. That's why of the 100 votes cast in the Senate concerning the USA Patriot Act, which gave sweeping, perhaps unconstitutional powers to the Attorney General (which most senators hadn't even bothered to read), only the lone vote of dissent cast by Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold qualifies as a truly patriotic act, in my book.
And it's for that reason, for instance, that I find statements like the ones made recently by Harvard President Lawrence Summers, where he called on students and professors at Harvard to be "more patriotic," or by the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni, where they basically accused many academics of being 'un-American," so disappointing. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role critical thought, and universities, play in the life of this country. While what happens on university campuses may not always make people feel comfortable, it is a necessary part of the public discourse that happens at such a time as this.
These days, I have an American flag on my desk. I'm proud of being an American. And just as its impossible to move to Boston and not become a Red Sox fan, now that I'm an American, I find myself feeling a quiet pride when I hear the national anthem, or the see of the flag on a building or when I walk the Freedom Trail.
But don't expect me to be a "yes" man, or to just "go along' because a politician tells me to do so. Or not question the principles we say we stay for because we need to 'stand tall.' I can't think of anything more un - American. Or less patriotic.