BIDLACK: Patriotism by proxy

Author: Hal Bidlack - November 22, 2017 - Updated: November 21, 2017

Hal Bidlack

Back in the mid 1990’s, I was sent by the Air Force Academy to the University of Michigan to pursue a Ph.D., after which I returned to the USAFA faculty to continue teaching. During that grad school stint, we chose to live in a small town about 45 minutes north of Ann Arbor. We enjoyed the small town atmosphere, including Fourth of July parades with lots of tractors and summer youth concerts in the town square. And thank you, kindly taxpayers, for affording me that opportunity. It was great!

Recently one memory from those halcyon days returned to me as I observed the ongoing squabbles in the Congress and with our president regarding tax reform. It was a parent night at the Fenton elementary school, and one parent noticed, on the wall of the classroom, a “daily affirmation” said by the kids each morning. The affirmation talked about being kind and respectful to others, and was entirely unobjectionable and positive. But one of the moms there that night was off put. She demanded to know why the Pledge of Allegiance had been removed. She was unaware of both the recent court decisions and the actual history of the pledge, but that must await a future essay. She insisted very earnestly and stridently that without the Pledge each day, the kids would not learn patriotism, and that would lead to, well, the collapse of the United States, the end of freedom, and perhaps dogs and cats getting married. She was pretty upset.

As I listened to her seemingly patriotic declamation, I found myself compelled to respond (you have perhaps noticed that I am not shy about telling you, kind readers, my opinions). I stood and addressed the group by saying that I was (then) a major in the U.S. Air Force, had commanded nuclear weapons installations, and taught the Constitution at the A.F. Academy, and that if she was relying on a daily oath to instill her children with patriotism, she was, well, foolish. Patriotism, I argued, comes from a deep and rich understanding of both the blessings and the blemishes of our form of government. The mom in question was clearly irritated. None the less, I stand by my point – true patriotism is felt deep within, and is not a jingoistic insistence on wearing flag lapel pins.

We have retreated, I worry, to those dark days on the cusp of the Civil War or perhaps the 1950s with Joe McCarthy seeing Soviet agents wherever he looked. We seem to again be in a mindset that those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but that they are also un-American. We have a president who asserts that news he does not care for is “fake news.” He asserts that he is the sole arbiter of truth, justice, and the (truly) American way. Mr. Trump sees the media, not as an important part of our process of governance, but rather as the enemy. In a tweet posted last February, Mr. Trump went so far as to say “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes@NBCNews@ABC@CBS@CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

Please take a moment to think about the implications of that statement. It is truly horrifying and appalling, yet for many it is an applause line.

While every president dislikes the media much of the time, it is both shocking and horrifying that a sitting president would call the press the enemy of the people. He argues that only he has “the truth” which he occasionally shares with Fox News. He urges his followers (whom he seems to think are the vast majority of the American people) to listen only to him, and to reject negative stories, or at least to await the “alternative facts” that will support his version of events.

This type of 1984 thinking should be deeply troubling to all, but alas, I fear it is not. The core of the Trump base will see this brief essay as just another attack from the left, by someone who is not truly an American, or at least one who is not sufficiently patriotic. After all, I don’t have an American flag as my lapel pin on. Because if you have such a pin, you show that you are a true patriot.

I respectfully disagree. True patriotism embraces the good and the bad, the strengths and the shortcomings of America. Anything less is, I worry, patriotism by proxy.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.