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Freedom Fridays, Lesson 19: Be a Patriot

Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Arriving at this second to last chapter, I am hard pressed not to simply post the entire chapter, word for word.

Reading it again this morning, I had to remind myself that Dr. Snyder published this manifesto three years ago, back when The Occupant was still settling into his nidus. Snyder’s counsel rings more true today than when I first began writing this series in the Summer of 2018.

(If you are wondering what took me so long to complete this, I was side-swiped with more cancer that Autumn. After a long recovery, I just felt overwhelmed by the dark relevance of these lessons, both for the present day, and for the terrible stirring they created for me, of past life traumas).

In any case, here we are. Whether or not The Occupant’s dramatic diagnosis last night ultimately relieves us of his oppressive personal influence, much damage has already been done, and we must be vigilant.

We must be true patriots.

What Patriotism Is Not

Alas, “patriotism” is a word that, for many decades, has been co-opted by an increasingly isolationist, jingoistic, and even white racist subtext. When I was in high school it was patriots versus peace-niks, the upshot being that those who supported ending the war in Vietnam were enemies of America.

It’s gone downhill ever since, with its sinister crown jewel being the oppositely named “Patriot Act.” This act of Congress was slapped into place only 45 days after the 9/11 attacks, while the country was still shocked and grieving. Title II, in particular, established three very controversial provisions: “sneak and peek” warrants, roving wiretaps, and the ability of the FBI to spy in secret on U.S. citizens.

As the American Civil Liberties Union writes:

[It] was the first of many changes to surveillance laws that made it easier for the government to spy on ordinary Americans by expanding the authority to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records, and track the activity of innocent Americans on the Internet. While most Americans think it was created to catch terrorists, the Patriot Act actually turns regular citizens into suspects…

…Our Constitution, laws, and values are the foundation of our strength and security. Yet, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, our government engaged in systematic policies of torture, targeted killing, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and religious discrimination. It violated the law, eroded many of our most cherished values, and made us less free and less safe.

Some of these policies, such as torture and extraordinary rendition, are no longer officially condoned. But most other policies—indefinite detention, targeted killing, trial by military commissions, warrantless surveillance, and racial, religious, and other forms of profiling—remain core elements of U.S. national security strategy today.

The most egregious part of the bill, the notorious Section 215 was allowed to expire in March of this year. Despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s furious attempt in May, 2020 to rush through a similarly deceptively named “USA Freedom Reauthorization” bill, that would have extended its terms (and which he fast tracked, in order to force a vote without comment or broader examination), for now, it is stuck in congressional limbo.

The Patriot Act is anything but. And we might all agree that it is not patriotic to —

Alas! There’s So Much More

Besides those more recent developments, Dr. Snyder’s prescient warnings include the insistence that it is not patriotic to —

  • admire some of the world’s most brutal foreign dictators.
  • cultivate a relationship with the late Muammar Qaddafi.
  • characterize Bashar al-Assad (Syria) and Vladimir Putin as superior leaders.
  • call upon Russia [and later China] to intervene in the American presidential elections.
  • cite Russian propaganda at rallies.
  • choose a National Security Advisor who was (and possibly still is) intertwined with the Putin regime and countless Russian oligarchs.
  • read a foreign policy speech by someone on the payroll of a Russian energy company.
  • appoint as his first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (February 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018), an oilman with Russian financial interests who is the director of a Russian-American energy company and has received the “Order of Friendship” from Putin.

Nationalism vs. Patriotism

The most thoughtful lesson from all this is not that America must remain enemies with Russia. It’s that we must learn to strip away the false layers of meaning that have turned “patriotism” into something far more limiting, bellicose, and divisive.

Snyder observes, “The [Occupant] is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us we are the best.”

Quoting George Orwell, he notes that a nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, and revenge [tends to be] uninterested in what happens in the real world.”

Snyder illuminates the difference further:

Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, nationalism ‘has no universal values – aesthetic or ethical.’

A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained.

A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well–and wishing that it would do better.

Snyder concludes this important lesson with the caveat that democracy is not a foregone conclusion. It failed in Europe in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and “it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today.”

It is imperative that we learn from history and the experience of millions of our predecessors, some of whom are still alive and warning us.

Snyder sums it up. “A nationalist will say that ‘it can’t happen here,’ which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.”

And so we must, my friends. There is still time.

All hands on deck.

To review all of the lessons, here are the links:

Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays, Lesson One: Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Two: Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Three: Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Four: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Five: Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Six: Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 8: Stand Out
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 9: Be Kind to Our Language
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 10: Believe in Truth
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 11: Investigate
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 13: Practice Corporeal Politics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 14: Establish a Private Life
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 15: Contribute to Good Causes
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 16: Learn from Peers in Other Countries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 17: Listen for Dangerous Words
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 18: Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives

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  • October 3, 2020, 11:27 am nofixedstars

    so many valuable points here…

    nationalism versus patriotism…such an important distinction to be made, and one that very few people seem to grasp.

    “democracy is not a forgone conclusion.” yes! democracy, like love, is best understood as a verb. it is an ongoing action, a practice.

    “it can’t happen here.” oh, it absolutely can. anyone who remembers or studied the ‘mc carthy era’ should know that. anyone who recalls or knows their european history of the late 20s and the whole of the 30s can see the chilling parallels between the rise of nazism (and other fascist regimes) and what has been happening here and now. american exceptionalism has always been a myth, and that applies most of all to america at home.