Commentary: Patriotism in Troubled Times

Buffalo, NY – At a conference I recently attended for 5,000 international educators from the U.S. and 80 other countries, a senior state department official made the chilling and utterly outrageous pronouncement that one can no longer claim to "hate this government's policies but love the country." I must have missed the breaking news that our First Amendment rights had been suspended because of perceived security concerns (a la John Ashcroft), or in order to pass some neoconservative litmus test.

This view that love of country and rejection of its government's policies are mutually exclusive reflects the hubris and self-righteousness of an administration that divides people into categories of "us" vs. "them," drawing the lines, circling the wagons, throwing down the gauntlet. "If you're not with us, you're against us," a transparent attempt to equate patriotism with blind support of a particular policy or vision. It blithely assumes that U.S. policies and actions express the will of the American people and are "naturally" in our interests.

Keep in mind that political appointees, like the one I quoted, generally believe what they say, unlike civil servants, who must often bite their tongues and tow the official line. As we have seen recently, some veteran American diplomats have even made the agonizing choice to leave the government they served with loyalty and distinction. Their opposition to current foreign policy and their desire to look at themselves in the mirror, integrity intact and conscience unsullied, leave them with no choice.

"Why do they do hate us?," Americans have asked in disbelief since 9/11. Among the legion of irrational reasons are some legitimate ones - our government's unilaterlism, its bullying, its support of the powerful over the weak, its unholy alliances.

One of the advantages of being a "free agent" when traveling, working or studying overseas is that we represent ourselves, our institutions or employers, our country, NOT whichever administration happens to be in power at the moment. In fact, it is often meaningful personal contact and interaction with people from other cultures that helps to counteract misperceptions, dispel stereotypes, and undo damage caused by U.S. policy.

Anyone who has lived abroad or worked extensively with foreigners knows that most of us distinguish between peoples and their governments. This is why I was able to befriend an Iranian student while I was an exchange student in Germany during the 1979 hostage crisis. It is why the Vietnamese, who have every right to be bitter about a superpower that left their country "a wasteland and called it peace" do not hold Americans personally or collectively responsible for the wholesale slaughter and suffering they know as the American War.

The America of 2003 is NOT the Bush Administration, nor are we as citizens obliged to walk in lockstep and present the kind of "united front" that does not exist within our borders. While I may be asked to explain my government's policies, I never have to justify or endorse them.

Love of country is not always warm and fuzzy, Fourth of July fireworks, and picnics with red, white and blue cakes. It encompasses a sense of civic duty that on occasion demands large doses of dissent. I will continue to exercise my right to love my country and, at times, hate my government's policies.

Listener-commentator Mark Ashwill is director of the World Languages Program (Department of Linguistics) and Fulbright Adviser at UB. He is also executive director of the U.S.-Indochina Educational Foundation, Inc. (USIEF).