Forced patriotism invites the unpatriot

Posted: Jul 06, 2003 12:00 AM

It's that time of year when we try to quantify our patriotism. Flags are out, barbecue pits fired up, and Gallup has the numbers.

Americans are hand-over-heart patriotic. Seventy percent responded to a June Gallup poll that they are "extremely proud" to be American and another 20 percent are "very proud." That just leaves 10 percent who are less than proud, and John Ashcroft will not be releasing their names.

I'd like to state for the record that I'm not just "extremely proud" to be an American, I'm "extremely delighted" for so many reasons that I hardly know where to begin, but here goes.

My No. 1 reason: In the U.S. of A., patriotism is (BEG ITAL) voluntary. Right?

Well, yes, it is, though recent events have made patriotism seem something less so. As in, I'm a little worried that I don't have my flag out yet, and the neighbors may be wondering whether I'm sufficiently patriotic. I went to the doctor's office yesterday and was handed a car flag on my way out the door. I saluted the nurse.

Pressure or bonhomie? (BEG ITAL) Sir, bonhomie, (BEG ITAL) sir!

I'm all for patriotism as defined above. It's good to love your country and most of us do. It would be fair to say that I was raised to be a patriot. In my childhood home, we kids practically had to recite the Pledge to receive nourishment. John Philip Sousa was our background music. We had military drills, and I knew how to fold a flag before I could fold a T-shirt. So went my serially weird Cold War childhood in the extremely patriotic hands of my WWII pilot/father.

So, yes, I grew up loving my country. Except, I confess, it wasn't sincere. I'm sorry. I faked patriotism so I wouldn't be banished to the bomb shelter to subsist on canned beans and powdered milk. Yes, the therapy is coming along nicely.

While I probably have a higher tolerance than some for patriotic fervor, given my background, I also have a commensurately low tolerance for devotion-on-demand. When patriotism becomes expected, forced or in some notable cases, ENforced -as in the firing of columnists whose opinions rub publishers the wrong way -it begins to feel creepy.

These days when I walk down flag-lined streets, my mind wanders to the Body Snatchers, which I admit is a short trip no matter what the circumstances. I imagine passersby sizing me up. Hmmmm, no flag lapel pin, nary a thread of red, white `n blue, no decal. Instinctively, I begin whistling "My Country `Tis of Thee."

Yes, I'm kidding. Sort of. Still, in the wake of Sept. 11, one can't help noticing that patriotism feels like a command performance. Maybe this is just a variation on familiarity breeding contempt, but when KP starts getting wiggy about Old Glory and ye ol' traditional values, it's possible that something's slightly a-kilter.

On the other hand, democracy is self-correcting and this, too, shall probably pass without undue damage to Our Way of Life. We're living in strange times, dodging mines in unfamiliar terrain, trying to figure out how to protect freedom and stay safe. It's a dicey path that demands vigilance and sometimes we slip.

In the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks, we were a tad exuberant in our patriotic zeal. I was (BEG ITAL) hunting flags to hang. In that initial emotional flush, we also were guilty of oversensitivity. If Bill Maher had made his statement (terrorists aren't cowards, we are) today, "Politically Incorrect" probably would still be on the air. Emotional distance allows for cooler heads.

The problem we face is that once patriotism drapes itself in the raiment of public virtue, it becomes something else, something oppressive, something decidedly un-American. It ain't freedom when it's forced. And hanging out a flag, though it may spiff up the neighborhood, isn't an act of patriotism unless it's voluntary.