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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Peaceful patriotism

The Fourth of July prompts reflections on patriotism. We might discover something of worth if we can get past its association with war.

The founders of our nation created something unprecedented: They structured democracy and human rights into the law of the land. Their conceptions of both were severely limited by the biases of their time — racism, sexism and disinterest in economic justice. But it’s unmerited self-congratulation to fault our forebears for not transcending their historical limits. We don’t. There’ll come a time when war will be deemed as barbaric as burning witches.

Conserving our founders’ achievements and supplying their deficiencies have been the agenda of patriotism since 1787. With the exceptions of the Civil War and World War II, our wars haven’t advanced that agenda. From the forced expulsions of Native Americans and Mexicans in the 19th century through the invasions and occupations of Central American and Caribbean nations in the 20th to our current embroilments in the Middle East, they’ve been motivated by greed and power and licensed by white supremacy.

At home, war is the foe of freedom. Speech is curtailed, surveillance is heightened, people are interned. In this regard, “cold wars” are worse than “hot.” The battlefield is everywhere, the fight unending. They spawn institutions like the House Un-American Activities Committee and legislation like the Patriot Act. Read ironically, such names are apt.

And then there’s the flag. What content can it have when scoundrels like Richard Nixon wave it as they subvert democracy and assault human rights?

Without military parades and the flag, what remains of patriotism? What else but citizenship, which, regarded patriotically, is less a legal status than a commitment to the common good. How can people claim to love their country if they vilify every public enterprise (except killing strangers in a foreign land) as an unwarranted intrusion into their private lives or a waste of their “hard-earned money”?

A friend argued patriotism is unethical because it values the lives of our countrymen/women more highly than those beyond our borders. I replied that his argument was valid only if that’s how patriots understand our commitment to a shared life. An alternative understanding is that our care for others begins with those closest to us and attenuates, but doesn’t cease, as our ability to make common cause with them diminishes.

In this regard, belonging to the same legal community draws a significant dividing line. I can influence the public policies of my city, state and nation. I cannot do that to help people who live in other nations. I can sympathize with their struggles, support nonprofits that support them, and endorse or oppose pertinent U.S. actions. But I can’t do much to shape their public lives.

Will there ever be a global government to which we pledge allegiance? Even if feasible, I think it undesirable. It would be too remote from individual citizens to be democratic. What are feasible and desirable are agreements establishing international norms of behavior. Many excellent ones now exist, and we should demand that the U.S. become party to those, such as the International Criminal Court, the land mine ban and CEDAW (ending discrimination against women), we’ve yet to ratify. I can’t be a global citizen in any precise sense of that word, but my country could do a much better job of it than it’s now doing.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.