Patriotic symbols act as teacher, leader

Paul Goebel

An interesting thing happened to me recently at a Washburn home football game. Before the playing of the national anthem, the announcer gave the crowd instructions on how to participate. At first I didn’t really think about this, but over the next few days and weeks, this brought many conflicting feelings and ideas to mind. Now that I’ve been contemplating this, the ultimate theme that keeps coming back to me is patriotism.

In the six-plus years that have passed since the attack on the World Trade Centers, American residents’ loyalty and patriotism have been the subject of countless comments by public officials, pundits and editors, through television, print and the Web. Much of the preaching and proselytizing has come from the White House and the conservative media. What strikes me about this is that the rhetoric hasn’t been about love of country and duty, but about not supporting the president or the troops. Teddy Roosevelt, in an editorial to the Kansas City Star in 1918, said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.” Those are strong words from a strong president.

So, how does TR’s opinion relate to a presidential candidate? If you missed a related news story recently, presidential hopeful Barack Obama in an Oct. 3 interview was asked why he wasn’t wearing an American flag lapel pin. Obama gave a succinct answer, basically saying there are different ways to show support for your country and he felt that the pin was just one. The next day The Drudge Report ran a story and headline about the “controversy” and within hours the media was off and running. Most of what was reported could be considered critical of Obama’s stance on the subject. My recollection is that President Nixon was the first to wear a flag lapel pin.

Mark Twain said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Who is right here? Does “Lapelgate” make Obama unpatriotic? If I don’t know what to do during the national anthem at a public event, should I be told? Does this make me a bad citizen?

Ultimately this is a question about symbols. We are told by politicians and pundits that the anthem and the flag represent our national ideals. When you look closely at the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it recounts the battle and the flag’s survival. It does not give instructions on how to be a good American. Respecting our country is something we are all told to do, starting in childhood. Like religion, patriotism is often force-fed to us. As a young person, I had both religion and patriotism fired at me; it took me a long time to decide how I felt and what I believed about both. Can young native-born citizens or new immigrants to the U.S. be indoctrinated to be “good Americans”? During the Cold War we were taught that the other side was doing the indoctrination.

Assuredly we all support our troops. Millions of us fly the flag proudly. It seems to me that example is a much better teacher and leader than indoctrination, rhetoric and vitriol.