"No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots." -- Barbara Ehrenreich, The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed
Recently, I was invited to speak to a group of affluent, upper-middle-class retirees. The host's estate was extensive, his home was airy and spacious, original art graced the walls, and the guests ranged from dignitaries to activists from the civil-rights era.
I had been invited to lead a discussion on ways to minimize political polarization and find common ground, and I agreed, hoping that these people -- who are well-educated, well-connected and well-to-do -- would want to get involved in the freedom struggle and effect change within their spheres of influence. Instead, I came face-to-face with those I've been writing about for years: materially comfortable, disconnected from reality, and totally oblivious to what's been going on in the American government as far as the erosion of our civil liberties and the amassing of power by the federal government.
I quickly realized that what these people call "polarization" is actually Americans challenging the status quo, especially the so-called government elite. To my surprise, I found myself on the receiving end of a group lecture in which I was reprimanded for being too negative in my views of the government. I was also informed that I need to have "faith" in our leaders and refrain from criticizing our president because Americans still live in the best country in the world. In other words, my patriotism was called into question.
But is this really what patriotism or loving your country is all about? If so, then Thomas Jefferson and the great freedom fighters of our times would be considered unpatriotic.
I felt like a radical extremist just sitting there. After all, I spend my time calling government leaders to account for their actions, and when they fail to abide by the Constitution, I actively and vocally exercise my rights as a citizen. In fact, the First Amendment does more than give us a right to criticize our country; it makes it a civic duty.
It didn't take long for me to see that my view of what it means to be American was diametrically opposed to that of the group. I belong to the camp that equates patriotism with activism -- even when that activism may be perceived as extremism. Martin Luther King Jr. put it best when, after being accused of extremism, responded, "The question is not whether we will be extremists, but: What kind of extremist will you be?"
This group, however, which is representative of a substantial cross-section of Americans, seems to think that faith in the government and a positive attitude are enough to get you through the day -- that you're not a good citizen if you criticize the government. They have come to believe that being a good citizen means doing one thing -- voting.
The problem we face today, however, is that America requires more than voters. It requires doers -- a well-informed and very active group of doers -- if we are to have any chance of holding the government accountable and maintaining our freedoms.
After all, it was not idle rhetoric that prompted the framers of the Constitution to begin with the words "we the people." In the words of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, throughout the extraordinary document that is the Constitution and Bill of Rights, "there is an implicit assumption that we, the people, will preserve our democratic rights by acting responsibly in our enjoyment of them." This ultimate responsibility for maintaining our freedoms then rests with the people.
The framers of the Constitution knew very well that whenever and wherever democratic governments had failed, it was because the people had abdicated their responsibility as guardians of freedom. They also knew that whenever in history the people denied this responsibility, an authoritarian regime arose that eventually denied the people the right to govern themselves. All governments fall into two classifications: those with a democratic form and those that are authoritarian, ruled by an individual or some oligarchic elite.
Acting responsibly, however, means that there are certain responsibilities and duties without which our rights would become meaningless. Duties of citizenship extend beyond the act of voting, which is only the first step in acting responsibly. Citizens must be willing to stand and fight to protect their freedoms. And if need be, it will entail criticizing the government. This is patriotism in action.
What this means is that we can still be patriotic and love our country while disagreeing with the government or going to court to fight for freedom. Responsible citizenship means being outraged at the loss of others' freedoms, even when our own are not directly threatened. It also means remembering that the prime function of any free government is to protect the weak from the strong.
Love of country will sometimes entail carrying a picket sign or going to jail, if necessary, to preserve liberty. And it will mean speaking up for those with whom you might disagree. Tolerance for dissent, we must remember, is a vital characteristic of the citizens of a democratic society. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."
Loving your country does not mean being satisfied with the status quo or the way government is being administered. Government invariably, possibly inevitably, oversteps its authority. As human beings are not perfect, governments, because they are constructs of human beings, will necessarily be imperfect as well.
Love of country, it must be emphasized, is always strengthened by both a knowledge of history and of the Constitution and, when need be, acting on that knowledge. "If we have no appreciation of the past," Justice Warren recognized, "we can have little understanding of the present or vision for the future."
The problems facing our generation are numerous and are becoming incredibly complex. Technology, which has developed at a rapid pace, offers those in power more invasive and awesome possibilities than ever before. Never in American history has there been a more pressing need to maintain the barriers in the Constitution erected by our founders to check governmental power and abuse.
We're at a very crucial crossroads in American history. We have to be well-informed, not only about current events but well-versed in the basics of our rights and duties as citizens. If not, in perceived times of crisis, we may very well find ourselves in the clutches of a governmental system that is alien to everything America stands for. And make no mistake about it: The mass of citizens will continue to be misinformed, and as astute political leaders have recognized in the past, they can be easily led. Therein is the menace to our freedoms.
As Hermann Goering, one of Hitler's top military leaders, opined: "It is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His book The Change Manifesto is available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at Rutherford.org.