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Patriotism, True and False: a meditation on the 4th.


As the fourth of July rapidly approaches there will be flags all over the place and politicians will talk endlessly of patriotism.  Here in Sebastopol a guy often drives around town with American flag flapping over his pick up truck bed.  Once a week people who claim the “support out troops” stand on a busy corner and solicit honks from others while across the intersection people dressed in black stand as silent witnesses for peace. They support our troops as well, but differently.  All if asked probably think of themselves as patriots. But they are thinking of different things.

As for me, I am currently suffering from a severe over dose of people who claim they are patriotic while in my mind they are attacking everything worth while this country ever stood for. To my mind they have profaned a valuable virtue and soiled its most relevant symbols.  And I consider myself patriotic.  The so-called ‘patriots’ of the political right have a reverse estimation of their own attitudes, and my own. We both wish there were more patriotism, but we mean different things by the word.

This column suggests using the 4th to rethink what each of us means by the term ‘patriotism.’

There are two kinds of genuine American patriotism, and two that are false. Genuine American patriotism takes two forms. They are not mutually exclusive, but appeal to different dimensions of who we are as Americans.

Genuine Patriotism
One kind of American patriotism is a deep love for the principles upon which this country was founded, principles clearly enunciated in our Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The same values are also clearly implied in our Constitution’s preamble.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These principles apply timelessly to all people, but are particularly associated with our own founding. They emphasize that all people are worthy of respect, equality under the law, and a voice in determining the laws and institutions under which they live.

Cynics will argue, and argue truly, that all too often these principles were imperfectly observed, or even denied. But to take their greatest failing, the long persistence of American slavery, the Declaration served as a standing reproach to those who lived by parasitizing their fellow human beings. Slavery and the Declaration could not be reconciled.  The reproach was so strong that ultimately the South repudiated the principles of 1776, explicitly founding their Confederacy not on freedom but on slavery and on the rights of governments, not of people.

But these principles also provide an eternal standard by which we can judge how well we measure up to this vision.  They were more than boilerplate.  They strengthened the resolve of many Americans to oppose a slavery they once had taken for granted, such that a majority of states had abolished it well before the Civil War. These principles have continued to push back at those who support the role of power and domination, and who believe that some people exist to be dominated and controlled by others.

These principles are important for another reason. They are in accord with the highest religious teachings of our species. As purely secular principles they do not reach quite so high, but are in harmony with elevating love and compassion as our highest ideals. Indeed, the principles enunciated in our Declaration are probably the only principles by which men and women of different beliefs and practices can live together peacefully. These principles do not always need to be made explicit in a founding document.  Our good neighbors to the north, the Canadians, emphasize good government and public order rather than those of the Declaration. But they do so in ways in keeping with the Declaration’s assertion that all people are equally worthy of respect and none rightfully the subjects of others.

The second form of American patriotism is rooted in our love of our community because it is OUR community. As Americans we share a common life often lost from sight until some disaster or aggression against some of us focuses us again on what we share in common as a political community. 9-11 was such an event, and even those of us who witnessed the attack from the far end of the country felt some of the horror and pain as we watched those jets slam into the World Trade Center towers.

In many ways this kind of patriotism is like our love for our families. We may not agree with other family members, even over issues we hold dear. We certainly did not choose them. But we are still family, sharing a common bond and for most of us deep obligations of loyalty and regard. Our national holiday of Thanksgiving is a powerful affirmation of these ties as people gather from every corner of the country to eat together.  Thanksgiving the only major holiday corporate America has yet to turn into a profit center, its importance is deeper than that. If at no other time, Democrats and Republicans, Pagans and Christians, gather together to celebrate both as members of a family. Other families around us are doing the same. The little patriotisms of Thanksgiving are a standing rebuttal to those who argue patriotism of the heart necessarily needs enemies.

On a larger scale this second kind of patriotism is a love of community and of place, of purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain and a shared life together that penetrates us so deeply people from other lands can often say they can spot an American simply by how they walk.  Our land and our culture integrate with our more intimate selves to make us who we are. Loving this is also patriotism.

Again, the cynic will say this land is our because our ancestors stole it from those who lived here before.  Having stolen it, much was despoiled.  Our communities were frequently unjust to Indians, to immigrants, to the weak, and to those who for some reason did not fit in. And again, they are right.

But our families whom we love have their share of warts and failings: alcoholism, destructive fights, fathers and sometimes mothers with PTSD, the life-long wounds all children receive from their parents, and other failings.  We as a species are not very good at loving or wisdom, and often take a lifetime to get as good at either as we will.  But in all but the very worst cases these failings do not justify us  in denouncing our families or rejecting them,  but at seeing them more completely and compassionately, neither denying their failings nor saying that is all there is to them.

The same is true with love of our nation and community. We praise its successes, criticize its failings, and seek as best we can to leave it a bit better off than when we arrived.

False Patriotism
Yet as bad money drives out good, two imposters are steadily weakening the hold genuine patriotism has for many of us. Like tapeworms and other parasites, they masquerade as what they are not to take on a vitality they could never acquire on their own. As with other parasites they weaken their host and too many of them can destroy it. Today we suffer from a bad infestation of those who raise false patriotism above the real thing.

The first of these parasitical imposters is the “patriotism” of those Americans who exclude many of their fellow Americans from full membership in our country. It is the “patriotism” of the Donald Trumps, Pat Buchanans and Anne Coulters, among others known and unknown, who exclude people they have never met and about whom they know nothing beyond their religion, ethnicity, or previous nationality being different from their own. American patriotism for these people is not belief in our country’s founding principles or love af a shared land, but rather a demand for community homogeneity, a single drum beat instead of a polyrhythmic dance.

To return to my family analogy, it is as if membership in the family requires agreement among all, and those with different views are expelled. Attitudes like these shatter families and countries alike. Far from being evidence for either love of family or love of country, this kind of ‘patriotism’ is simply a narcissistic love of self expanded to include or reject all others based on such a narrow standard. Those who differ from my values or attitudes do not deserve fellowship with me. It narrows, embitters, and weakens a country because it reflects attitudes at odds with genuine love of country as well as human decency. Today many Americans’ hearts are poisoned by this false patriotism, and they think it is a virtue.

Bad as this third kind of “patriotism” is, it constitutes Enlightenment itself compared to the fourth. The most toxic of all, the fourth is simply love of power and domination over others tarted up in patriotic rhetoric. We are the strongest, and we should be stronger still. All should give way before us.

This is the philosophy of the thug, glorifying our country’s power while undermining the well-springs of that power. They are excited by our capacity to impose our will and kill those who disagree. They argue the President is above the law, an American Caesar, and the rules of law and decency no longer apply when it is useful for us, the powerful, to set them aside. This is an old view, one Thucydides quotes the Athenians as saying in his Melian Dialogue: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” 

This fourth kind of “patriotism” undermines first two. By claiming patriotism is only genuine for those who support them, they split our nation, weakening it internally. Their view is completely at odds with the sentiments of our Declaration and Constitution, and so constitutes a repudiation of the first kind of patriotism.  It also violates the second kind by honoring only their own sentiments of strength and loyalty, attacks other views and claims the right to invade and bomb wherever they wish because they are strong and America is “great.”

Those adhering to it are among our country’s most dangerous enemies while pretending to be its most loyal citizens. They erode the genuine patriotism that makes love of country and community a praiseworthy thing, and so split the community in two weakening it.  One of the saddest aspects of politics today is that so many well-meaning Americans still believe these people love their country. They do not. They love power.

And for many of us they have ruined the Fourth of July because these false values have come to discolor the ones truly worthy of veneration.


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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


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