Patriotism scarce? No, it abounds in many forms

Jul. 05, 2014 @ 09:28 AM

As the Fourth of July, that most patriotic of American holidays, approached last week, Bill O’Reilly and Charles Krauthammer on Fox News ginned up the specter of a patriotism crisis in the country.

They were concerned – very concerned – over a number from a Pew Research Center report. “New poll, Charles,” O’Reilly offered as he set up Krauthammer’s response. “As adults, do you often feel proud to be an American? Fifty-six percent indicated they do, the rest 44 percent — big number — saying, ‘No, not often.’”

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple pretty much dismantled the Faux News bit on his blog the next day. As any pollster or sociologist knows, the way you ask a polling question will sharply alter the response.

The Pew study, Wemple reported, “posed a series of statements and asked whether the sentiment ‘applies’ to the respondent. For the patriotism question, it asked whether folks feel that way ‘often,’ rather than just as a general proposition. (It’s worth noting that 34 percent said “sports fan” applied to them, a number that strikes me well below what conventional wisdom might suggest.)

Worded with less nuance, other polls have yielded results that should reassure anyone worried about the state of patriotism. More than a dozen Pew polls since 1989 have asked people if they agree “I am very patriotic.” Twenty-five years ago, the percentage was 89 percent – as it was the last time the question was asked two years ago. In between, it hovered between 89 and 92 percent.

What, after all, is patriotism?  Is it the remark of Navy hero Stephen Decatur early in the 19th century, admittedly stripped of nuance in its frequent retelling, “my country, right or wrong?” Did Wisconsin Sen. Carl Shurz get it right when, citing that phrase, he continued: “My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

I came of age in the 1960s. Debates raged – it’s hard, today, to remember or convey the intensity and violence of those angry days – over whether those who questioned our engagement in Vietnam were traitors – or patriots who wanted to set right a wrong country.

Leonard Pitts on this page Tuesday quoted reactions to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia “who called it a work of ‘manifold evils’ and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater who called it a “monstrous instrument of oppression.”

Wrong though he was on that score, was Goldwater a patriot? Most certainly so.

So, too, were those who through the civil rights movement challenged 200 years of oppression. Derided by foes as un-American and even communist, they had a zeal for the core values of this republic that saw them, for example, die trying to uphold them 50 years ago in “freedom summer.”

Will Eric Snowden, who leaked thousands of government documents, be remembered as a traitor who undermined security or a patriot who ignited an important debate over government surveillance? 

Our reverence for a person’s patriotism can be a shape-shifter.  John Kerry, long admired for his patriotism in serving in Vietnam, was pilloried as a presidential candidate by other swift boat veterans as a fake. George W. Bush was challenged by his opponents for evading active service in that same Vietnam War. But whatever you think of his policy response to 9/11, he rallied the country with force and eloquence in the attack’s immediate aftermath.

Patriotism, like so much, is complicated.

But is it in short supply? I don’t think so – especially if you embrace its many forms.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.