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Patriotism and Every Man for Himself: Conservatives' Inconsistency

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I don't get it how a lot of conservatives seem to think about what it means for us Americans to constitute a nation together.

On the one hand, it seems important to these conservatives to think of themselves as PATRIOTS. And by patriotism, they seem to mean the kind of love of country that makes one ready to fight to defend it against outside enemies. A patriot shows the flag and declares that we're united, all in this together.

On the other hand, these conservatives think it's wrong for us to think of ourselves as "all in this together" when it comes to creating the kind of humane community that we believe in--one that makes decisions together about how to help one another live with some degree of security and decency. Things like providing adequate health care for all, and keeping productive enterprises from poisoning the air and water that other people need. In this realm, somehow, it's supposed to be every man for himself.

I know: when it comes to fighting to protect ourselves, we pretty much have to do it together: countries can't defend themselves with just uncoordinated individual efforts. But for these patriots, we don't just come together in the spirit of "I'm going to cooperate with my countrymen in order to protect what's MINE." No, we're supposed to love the nation, and be willing to sacrifice what's our own because of that larger US that we are as a nation.

So why is it a virtue to think of America as an "US" when it comes to outside enemies, but somehow it's terrible for us to be an US to make collective decisions-- when it comes to the quality of our lives and our communities?

Why is it a patriotic virtue to rally round the flag, and to pledge allegiance to the Republic for which it stands, when it comes to defense, but somehow it's wrong to work together to use that Republic to shape our society into something that expresses our humane values?
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Why is that same government we salute and obey in wartime regarded as an alien force almost like an occupying power--when it comes to ideas about our using that government as an instrument to make a more humane society.

Shouldn't patriotism shouldn't our relationship to the idea of an US--apply equally to BOTH kinds of challenges? Isn't the government we're supposed to follow when it leads us in war just as trustworthy when it works to make sure that our markets work, that people get educational opportunities and health care, that our big private powers don't abuse ordinary citizens?

And sure, we should also be vigilant about government abusing its power, to make sure that it's genuinely government of and for and BY the people. But doesn't that vigilance not apply equally to the making of war and to the shaping of a humane society?

Why this strange double standard, in which we are supposed to march smartly off to battle when Uncle Sam calls, but are supposed to cry "Tyranny" when government is used as an instrument to implement our shared values of what a society should be like? Isn't working through government to make a better society an equally valid kind of Patriotism?
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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