What Is an American ‘Patriot’?

As the patriotic celebrations of July Fourth fade, there remains the enduring question of what it really means to be an American “patriot.” Is it loyalty to the country whatever its actions or is it a readiness to criticize some of those actions? In this guest essay, Gary G. Kohls asks whether “good Americans” risk becoming today’s “good Germans.”

By Gary G. Kohls

July 5, 2011

Most of us Americans would call ourselves patriots, whether our politics or theologies are right-wing/conservative, left-wing/liberal, or centrist/independent. But what exactly do we mean by patriotism?

Do we mean the blind patriotism that says “My Country, Right or Wrong,” the immoral notion that “might makes right” as long as “my country” wields the might, the type of patriotism that Samuel Johnson once called “the last refuge of the scoundrel”?

Do we mean the patriotism of 16th Century Protestant reformers (like Martin Luther) who believed that Christians were to be unconditionally obedient to their national leaders, no matter how corrupt those leaders were, a notion that – four centuries later – justified good German obedience to the cruel fascist dictator Adolf Hitler?

Or do we mean the type of patriotism that vigorously opposes the agendas of the wealthy elite, the conscienceless corporations, the Pentagon warmongers and the assorted pathological liars that dominate politics and the far-right fringe media that are attempting to destroy liberal democracy in America?

Are we the type of patriots that love our nation so much that we are willing to have a lover’s quarrel with it?

In order to find out which type of patriotism any or us espouse, consider the following “hypothetical” situation:

Suppose you are a white, church-going, Bible-believing citizen in a country that has prided itself in its inventiveness, its literacy, its art, its culture, its superpower status and its glory in past wars.

Say that you saw powerful corporations and their cronies who are in positions of political power grab control of your democratic nation’s media, its legislature, judiciary and military by the use of propaganda and rigged elections. 

Suppose that the citizenry was being consistently lied to about its nation’s foreign policy objectives, its enemies, even deceptively leading the nation into war after war, with no regard to the lethal spiritual, mental and physical costs to its warrior class.

Say that the business and political leaders of that nation clandestinely gained control of the highest executive office in the land and then started taking away, in rapid succession, the civil and human rights of many of the nation’s minority groups.

Suppose that the party of the installed war-like leader (even if that leader was only the puppet of a hidden shadow government) started accusing progressive, peace-loving citizens of being traitors, silenced dissenters, imprisoned people of conscience, purged anti-fascist resistance groups, censored the liberal press and otherwise removed opposing ideologies from the public consciousness

Suppose the prophets, artists, poets, song-writers, film-makers, creative thinkers and conscientious objectors to war and killing were all unjustly accused of being unpatriotic and were therefore spied upon, arrested and their organizations infiltrated by moles.

You would be in 1930s Germany and the anti-democracy tyrants would have been the far-right-wing militarists Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goering, the Freikorps, the Gestapo, the SS and their obedient henchmen.

But if your answer to the above question was “America,” or at least the America as envisioned by the imperialist Project for the New American Century (PNAC), then this important question should be asked: What would you have done if you were a 1930s-era “Good German” seeing your democratic nation going fascist?

If you were a typical straight, white, professedly Christian male, with all the privilege and power granted to you by that majority status, you would have said virtually nothing in opposition to Hitler’s policies, even as the rights of minority groups other than your own were being taken away.

You would have been silent as Hitler’s “enemies” were tortured and “disappeared” in the middle of the night and sent into the gulag of prisons, mental institutions or death camps. 

As an average Bible-believing German Christian, you would have obeyed your war-supporting, anti-Semitic bishops, priests or pastors (most of whom had pledged a solemn oath of allegiance to the Fuhrer). 

Germans Christians were largely conservatives who had been trained in their child-rearing — and taught in their schools and churches — to submit to authority.

So, you would have been expected to be obedient to the rulers in Berlin in times of national crisis, rather than faithfully adhering to the ethical teachings of Jesus, who forbade homicidal violence to his followers and who said that they were to be merciful and forgiving towards (rather than to be killers and torturers of) their enemies.

If you were an average German lawyer, physician or psychiatrist, you would have joined the Nazi Party, for doing otherwise would have jeopardized your professional standing.

And you would have kept your mouth shut and resisted acting on your compassionate feelings even when witnessing the fear and anguish of your Jewish, Slavic, socialist, liberal, or gay clients as they were dragged into court and disappeared into the prisons, concentration camps and gas chambers.

So, the question remains: if you saw your democratic nation going fascist, would you have done what the vast majority of “patriotic” Germans did in the 1930s and 1940s and continued to be obedient to their criminal leaders who had obtained their power by acts of violence?

Would you have been on the wrong side of history by swearing oaths of allegiance to their pathologically lying leaders and saluting the swastika, rather than working to subvert their criminal nation?

Knowing that any person who opposed Hitler’s wars of aggression was considered an enemy of the state, which side would you have supported? 

Would you have taken the side of the victims or the police state? Would you have suffered in solidarity with the fingered enemies of the police state, or would you have kept your Christian ethics submerged and joined the fascist oppressors?

Would you have been on the side of the freedom-fighters (labeled as “terrorists” or “insurgents” by the propaganda machine of the oppressors) who were courageously and patriotically trying to save their nation from unwanted colonizers, or would you have supported the agendas of the militarists? 

Now think over the similarities between the Germany of the 1930s and the more friendly-faced, militarized, proto-fascism we are coming to see as normative in our increasingly right-wing America.

If you do so in good conscience, particularly recalling 1) the shredding of the U.S. Constitution during 2) the right-wing Cheney/Bush administration, 3) the mis-named Patriot Acts and Homeland Security Laws, 4) the shift to blatant corporate rule with the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts, 5) the list of right-wing politicians who won the U.S. House and 6) the many fascist-leaning Republican governors in last fall’s elections, look at 7) the list of right-wing presidential candidates declaring for President of the United States of America for 2012 and then study the list of characteristics of fascism below, you will realize that the overthrow of democracy – and the institution of police-state fascism – may be closer than you think.

But in the process of pondering these issues and applying your political and theological convictions, the manner in which you conduct your public and private life will become clearer — and so will the agendas of those who want your vote, your business or your silence.

And whether or not you will wind up on the right side of history will be determined by how you conduct yourself in the polling booth, in your places of worship and in the marketplace.

If you conduct yourself honorably, your political, spiritual and economic life will more likely be as a good patriot and therefore as an active resister against tyranny in all its forms rather than as a perpetrator, a victim, a collaborator or as a guilty bystander.

In conclusion, I present a couple of abbreviated summaries from two prophetic voices who have studied the history of fascism. They apply to what has been happening right here in the USA. Read them and weep, then act.

10 Easy Steps to Fascism from End of America by Naomi Wolf

 1. Invoke terrifying internal and external enemies

2. Create a gulag

3. Develop a thug caste

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

5. Harass citizens’ groups

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

7. Target key individuals

8. Control the press

9. Punish dissent as treason

10. Suspend the rule of law

The 14 Characteristics of Fascism from Lawrence Britt, PhD

1. Powerful Nationalism/Patriotism

2. Human Rights Violations

3. Unification Around Scapegoats

4. Militarism

5. Sexism

6. Press Censorship/Control

7. Strong National Security State

8. “Merger” of Church and State

9. Corporatism

10. Suppression of Trade Unions

11. Anti-Intellectualism

12. Law and Order Obsession

13. Corrupt Crony Capitalism

14. Fraudulent Elections

Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who practiced holistic mental health care and therefore has extensive experience treating the victims of violence who are often falsely labeled as having a “mental illness of unknown cause.” Dr. Kohls feels is it his professional duty to warn others of the dangers to mental and physical health that are inherent in the participation of violence, especially military violence. 

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