I read through Obama’s statement on patriotism as someone who feels the usual distance from the concept after having seen it turned into a right-wing, often racist, battering ram since my teen years. After all, it was the segregationist cry that those proposing equality—or ‘race mixing’ as they called it—were subversive agents of foreign powers, carpetbagging interlopers who failed to respect the southern/American way of doing things.
Then during the Vietnam war anyone who thought that adventure was a mindless and criminal waste was liable to be beaten silly with an American flagpole. It is true, as Obama noted, that the counterculture movement turned the flag into a hate object—I recall a bunch of drooling teenagers at one antiwar march leaping maniacally over burning flags and wondering to myself if this was a wise approach—but no one lost sleep in those days over the possibility of alienating the other guys.
However, Obama is recycling a one-sided myth by accusing antiwar youth such as myself for ‘failing to honor’ returning Vietnam vets. In fact, it was precisely my friends and I who extended sympathy and practical support to the returning vets and some active-duty servicemen who either dissented at great cost or sought ways to have no more to do with the whole sorry endeavor.
I shared a group house with draft and military law counselors and spent many a weekend with their clients as they poured in from the bases ringing Washington and ended up crashing on our sofas. They were young kids like ourselves who ended up in uniform and soon realized what a travesty they had been led into.
Today, there is no obvious counterculture coinciding with the opposition to failed foreign conquest, so no one can pin the blame on us for the returning veterans’ PTSD or their disorientation from their previous lives. So what’s the result? Bush, McCain and their consiglieres are free to dump on the veterans themselves, stiff them over benefits and shortchange their medical and psychiatric care. That wouldn’t be so easy if they had an active antiwar movement to bait and felt the need to draw a politically expedient contrast.
As for patriotism itself, it was originally about father-worship and clan chauvinism (note the word’s Latin roots), and Obama strikes just the right modernizing note in refusing to debase the concept into a mere wagon-circling defense of one’s own. He says loving one’s country means loving its better self, not just the people who are contained within its borders, and he even dared to mention other non-American human beings in the same breath. I could do without the God Bless the United States of America, but okay, that’s just me.