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Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2020 by David E. Ross
During the primary campaigns leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, the patriotism of U.S. Senator Barack Obama was strongly questioned. In the eyes of some opponents, he committed two unpatriotic sins.
- During the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, Senator Obama stood at attention with his hands at his side. He did not have his right hand over his heart. In elementary school (more than a half-century ago), I was indeed taught to stand at attention with my hands at my side for our national anthem, just the same way Senator Obama stood. We put our right hands over our hearts only for the Pledge of Allegiance.
- Senator Obama does not wear an American flag lapel pin! As noted elsewhere in this commentary, I am very suspicious of those whose patriotism relies on symbols rather than on actions. Someone who needs a lapel pin to demonstrate he is a patriot — symbolically wrapping himself in the American flag — is no true patriot.
16 March 2008
I approach patriotism the same way I practice my religion, not with public displays of symbols — waving the flag or singing "God Bless America" — but by living my life as an example.
- I registered to vote as soon as I became 21 (the minimum voting age way back then). As each turned 18 (the minimum age now), I made sure my children registered to vote. As new neighbors moved into my community, I would visit them and give them voter registration post cards.
- Before each election, I study the positions of the candidates on the issues, not only issues personally important to me but also issues that will affect the entire constituency of the candidates. I discuss the candidates with my family and friends and point out where a candidate advocates a "quick fix" to a problem that will have bad results much later.
I vocally oppose candidates who campaign on issues that are outside the scope of the offices they seek (such as a county supervisor — same as a county commissioner in other states — who declares his intent to improve our schools although county government in California has absolutely no authority over public education). I also oppose candidates who manufacture issues (such as the city council candidate in a neighboring city — with the lowest crime rate of any city in the United States — making a very large issue over crime). On the other hand, I do send small campaign contributions to candidates who have realistic views of those issues they could indeed address if elected, views that align with my own.
I study each ballot proposition carefully. I read what the supporters and opponents say about the proposition and about each other's arguments.
Finally, I vote. I have missed only one election in 58 years.
- I pay my taxes by the time they are due. Recognizing that "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society" [Oliver Wendell Holmes], I claim only those exemptions and deductions on my income taxes that I am truly allowed.
- I have never attempted to bribe a politician or public employee. I never even attempted to quash a traffic ticket. And during the 14 years that I was elected to public office, I never solicited or accepted a bribe. (I did joke once with a land developer, telling him that bribing me would cost more than his project was worth and likely more money than he had.)
- When called for jury duty, I report to the court for service. The three times I actually was on a jury panel, I followed the judge's instructions about giving an unbiased decision based only on the evidence.
Now that I am 79 years old, however, driving 30 miles to the courthouse very early in the morning is very stressful. My wife finally convinced me that I should accept the provision in California law that allows me to exempt myself from jury duty.
- When the opportunity arose, I volunteered for service on the Ventura County Grand Jury. I was selected to serve in two consecutive years. On the Grand Jury, I participated in investigations of the County and of cities, special districts, and school districts within the County. As a result of those investigations, I participated in writing reports, some of which caused changes in the way government agencies operate. In a few cases, these reports resulted in changes for the better for some of the most vulnerable residents of Ventura County.
This service required a year-long commitment of time and effort, a commitment that was renewed for a second year. It meant attending Grand Jury and committee meetings 3-5 days a week for 2-6 hours a day, for which compensated less than the minimum wage. Because of the California laws regarding grand juries, it also meant remaining silent and frustrated when public officials reacted negatively to the Grand Jury's thoroughly researched reports.
- I have read our nation's Constitution several times over, from the Preamble ("We the people … ") through the 27th (last) Amendment (" … an election of Representatives shall have intervened.") (Has anyone noticed that, in my other commentaries, I capitalize Constitution the same way I capitalize God? Yes, patriotism can be very much like a religion.) I have also read many of the Supreme Court's commentaries regarding the Constitution. Understanding them does not require a lawyer's expertise.
More important, I believe in the Constitution and how it declares individual rights to be superior to the collective needs of the government. I speak out in favor of preserving our rights even when popular sentiment favors surrendering then for the sake of safety and security.
- I know who has been elected to represent me in government:
- I personally know members of the School Board of the Oak Park Unified School District, members of the Board of Directors of the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District, and my Ventura County supervisor, all on a first-name basis.
- I know who represents me in the California Assembly and who represents me in the California State Senate.
- I know who represents me in the United States House of Representatives and in the United States Senate.
- I know who is governor of California.
- I know who is Mayor of Los Angeles and who are some of the Los Angeles County supervisors, even though I do not live either in the city or county of Los Angeles.
- I have studied our nation's history, not only the stories of Presidents and wars but also the social, economic, and technological trends. I understand how our society became the way it is and the origins of our peculiar customs and institutions.
- I know my neighbors and am friendly with most of them. I respect them and accept their differing religions, politics, and origins.
- I write letters to the editors of local newspapers and to elected officials. I tell not only those who represent me but also other politicians when they are wrong and when they are right.
- I use the Web to look up bills pending in Congress and pending in the California Legislature. I actually follow the progress of some of those bills and write to key members of committees that hold hearings on those bills.
Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is
unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.
Irving Berlin was one of our nation's greatest song writers of the 20th century. However, his "God Bless America" (not quite as popular as his "White Christmas") is dreadful. Unlike other patriotic songs, it fails to create a vision of America the way it really is or the way we would like it to be. It fails to inspire us with any image of historical victory. This song does not ennoble the people — collectively or individually — who have made our nation great, invoke our nation's spirit, or glorify our ideals. There is nothing of our nation's heritage in "God Bless America".
Yes, "God Bless America" is much easier to sing than "The Star Spangled Banner". It would have been embarrassing if our Congressmen — assembled on the steps of the Capitol — had fumbled singing our national anthem. But "America the Beautiful" is also easier than "The Star Spangled Banner" while also reminding us of why our nation is indeed special. Even "This Land is My Land, This Land is Your Land" glorifies the United States more than "God Bless America".
The patriotism of flag wavers is quite different from my patriotism. Yes, flag wavers love our nation. For many flag wavers, however, waving the flag is their only patriotic activity. This makes me very uncomfortable. Waving a flag does not really make someone a patriot any more than singing "Danny Boy" makes someone Irish.
I have a special problem with those who fly flags from their automobiles. In general, flags are displayed on automobiles contrary to the rules of flag etiquette codified in law (4 USC Chapter 1):
- On an automobile, "The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle … the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender." (4 USC Chapter 1 §7(b)) Definitely, the United States flag must not be fastened to a radio antenna. It belongs in the right-front of a car, not attached to the left-rear window.
- On a car moving along a freeway at 50-75 miles per hour, a flag is subjected to winds of gale or hurricane force. Soon, the flag becomes frayed and tattered. "The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way." (4 USC Chapter 1 §8(e))
- Nevertheless, there are many flags on cars that are no longer fit to be displayed. "The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way …" (4 USC Chapter 1 §8(k)) not by dropping it into a trash bin or by allowing it to tear loose from the car and blow away, perhaps to land on the highway and be driven over by another automobile. My County Supervisor has a dropbox outside her office where flags can be place for proper destruction.
Besides failing to abide by "flag etiquette", too many flag wavers also ignore "road etiquette". They tail-gate, weave in and out without signaling, and drive through red signals. Flying a flag (or sometime two flags) while driving that way does not make them patriots. Instead, they are merely rude slobs. Or are they trying to show that real Americans are road bullies? They have no appreciation for the image they present while displaying the symbol of our nation, tying their behavior to a definition of America. This, too, is disrespectful of our flag.
Overall, too many "patriots" who fly the flag from their automobiles show as much disrespect for the flag as those who would burn the flag to protest our government's actions. I suspect that they are motivated primarily by a need to show off. They approach patriotism the same way that hypocrites approach religion, making a big show about going to church but, in their daily lives, hating their neighbors and refusing to give to charity.
No, I do not own a flag. I don't need a flag to be a patriot.
What kind of patriot are you? Do you live patriotism? Or do you only indulge in the public showing of empty symbols?
14 October 2001
Updated 4 July 2004, 26 October 2007, 5 November 2020
Al Martinez, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is a patriot. This can be seen in his 5 July column, in which he describes our right to refuse to join the popular crowd.
7 July 2003
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