Last week, the American election campaign was all about patriotism -- specifically, who was the better patriot, Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama. To answer that question, as David Greenberg pointed out in Slate, it's important to realize that McCain and Obama were arguing from different premises and definitions.
McCain's definition of patriotism, best articulated by Ronald Reagan, has been popular for the last twenty-five years. According to Greenberg, Reagan's patriotism "rested on a steadfast protectiveness of American values in the face of enemies -- proven through a muscular nationalistic military posture." It was "impatient with critical perspectives" and "advocate(d) an unhestitant participation in collective rituals like waving the flag, saying the Pledge of Allegience and even public prayer."
Obama's definition of patriotism was perhaps best articulated by Adlai Stevenson during his presidential campaign of 1952. Speaking at the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy's witchhunt, Stevenson told the American Legion, "True patriotism is based on tolerance and a large measure of humility." It, Greenberg wrote,"respect(ed) dissenting speech in the service of collective improvement."
The former definition lends itself to symbols like lapel pins and flags. The latter is diverse and not easily reducible to a symbol or a motto, like semper fidelis. It is not surprising, then, that Stevenson was soundly trounced by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.
The problem with Reagan's and McCain's definition of patriotism, however, is that it can -- and has -- been used to justify abridging the Constitution. It was generally accepted during the McCarthy period. And it reared its head again during the Watergate Crisis, when Richard Nixon declared, "When the president does it, it's not illegal." And, during the last eight years, it has been this definition which has been used to justify the prison at Guantanamo, warrantless wiretapping and the War in Iraq itself. It is no accident that the legislation which was passed after September 11th -- legislation which curtailed various civil liberties -- was labelled The USA Patriot Act. Anyone who questioned the legislation was attacked by the Bush Administration for his or her lack of patriotism.
But as public support for the war has gone south, so has the traditional Republican definition of patriotism -- so much so that members of the military, who typically accept it as doctrine, have begun to give voice to the other definition. In a recent opinion piece on truthout.org , Michael Winship quotes Air Force Reserve Maj. David J.R. Frakt -- a military lawyer -- who argued last month that his client, Mohammed Jawad -- an Afghan imprisoned at Guantanamo -- should be released, because the two weeks of sleep deprivation he had endured amounted to torture. "After six and a half years," Frakt said, "we know the truth about the detainees at Guantanamo: some of them are terrorists, some of them are foot soldiers, and some of them are just innocent people, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the detainees at Guantanamo have one thing in common -- with each other and with us -- they are all human beings and they are all worthy of humane treatment." Frakt was arguing for tolerance and humility.
Some will argue that, during a war, a nation can ill afford tolerance and humility. But a nation which proclaims "we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights" cannot afford the folly of the last eight years. If Mr. Obama wins the election, he will have convinced his countrymen to accept a different definition of patriotism.