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PATRIOT/PATRIOTIC/PATRIOTISM: to what is one patriotic? One can be patriotic to the country’s leader

September 4, 2008

G.K. Chesterton: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no true patriot would think of saying. . . . It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober’”; from Latin for "land of my father," these terms function today as inclusive words, although their connections to all the "father" words (patriarchy, paternalism, patrimony, patronizing) tend to emphasize the male-dominated, war-prone elements of our country. George Lakoff (Thinking Points) points to two ways of viewing patriotism. Conservatives believe that patriots "do not question the president or his war policies. To do so undermines our nation and its troops. Revealing secret, even illegal, government programs is treasonous. The Constitution should be amended to criminalize political dissent in the form of flag desecration." Progressives believe that the "greatest testament to one's love of country is when one works to improve it. This includes principled dissent against policies one disagrees with and against leaders who promote those policies. Times of war are no exception. Our first loyalty is to the principles of our democracy that are embedded in our Constitution, not to any political leader." Using the word "patriot" demands a clarification: to what, exactly, is one patriotic? It is generally taken to mean "patriotic to one's country." But that is vague to the point of meaninglessness (and usually means only, "Think the way I do"). For example, one can be patriotic to the country’s leader (the president) or to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These different understandings clash in, for example, the Patriot Act, which increases the president’s powers at the expense of guaranteed rights. If you sometimes want an alternative for "patriotic" without sex-linked roots, consider civic-minded, public spirited, nationalistic, loyal.