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Commentary: True Patriotism

By Larry Burriss, Professor of Journalism at Middle Tennessee State University


Murfreesboro, TN – One of the issues that keeps coming up in this year's election is that of patriotism. Which candidate is more patriotic than the other, and how do you know?

Does having a combat record make you more patriotic than someone who doesn't? What about wearing a flag lapel pin? Can you be a patriot if you don't think your country is perfect? Is there a difference between nationalism and patriotism?

Like so much else in this election, these questions are not new, and many can be traced back to July 14, 1798, the day that Congress passed the Sedition Act. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish false, malicious and scandalous news stories about the government.

Under the act, more than a dozen people were arrested, and most of them spent time in jail. During the Civil War, General Sherman arrested a number of reporters and threatened to hang a couple, because he didn't like the stories they were writing. In World War I, a number of states had laws outlining what was, and what was not, patriotic speech. Many people of German descent were jailed, and a couple of people were lynched, because they didn't show enough support for the war. On July 14, 1972, 174 years to the day the Sedition Act was passed, Jane Fonda was criticized for making anti-war statements.

Today, those who are not sufficiently supportive of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are often criticized for not being patriotic. But just like those who are vocal in their opposition to the war, those who are in favor have the right to speak out and criticize those with whom they disagree.

I always thought that those who speak out about most anything are more patriotic than those who sit by idly and say nothing. Almost as bad are people who simply have knee-jerk reactions either for or against something.

People who criticize at least have given some thought to what they're criticizing. It really doesn't take much education, thought, or fervor to do nothing. It's easy to sit on the sidelines and simply criticize those who are in favor or opposed to current policies, whether we're talking about the war, the economy, healthcare, or environmental issues.

Patriotism shouldn't be measured by whether or not you wear a flag. It should be measured by how involved you are in the public process of the public's business.