Permissive Patriotism zTC


July 02, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- We are heading to the country for the holiday. Far away from the prefabricated parades and the made-for-television ticker tape that turns city streets into postwar spectacles.

The Pentagon won't send its hardware where we are going. The Fourth of July parade will be homemade and down-home. A patriot is not a missile everywhere.

And just as well. There is something increasingly artificial in these postwar productions. Do we replay the last hurrahs in order to prove to each other and the ''millions watching at home'' that we are not experiencing a relapse of Vietnam syndrome? Do we go out in public to do an impression of pride in country?

The Fourth of July has always been a special holiday. Never Monday-ized, it commemorates a statement of principle, not a day off work. This is the date on which Americans told the world what we stood for.

But how watered down the current batch of Gulf-infused sentiments seems. In the wake of a war that liberated Kuwait to hold its kangaroo courts, and conquered a tyrant still very much in charge, our ringing declaration is reduced to: ''We're Number One.'' In our country's third century, we are more like fans than citizens. We prove our allegiance by cheering ''USA! USA!''

How have we become a country of such permissive patriotism? It's as if some perverse child-raising manual was being applied to the relationship between the governed and the government. We, the people, are like parents reluctant to set high standards for their children, to hold them responsible, to criticize them. Permissive patriots are easily pleased.

How else to explain the attention to military victory and the

inattention to our domestic defeats? How else to explain the din of the parades and the eerie silence about our economic slide? The attendance at postwar parades and the absence of concern about postwar policies?

Thirty years ago, Jack Kennedy told Americans, ''Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.'' Maybe we learned that lesson too well. We have

lowered our expectations, and in return politicians, like children, lowered their performance.

On the streets there is a daily shooting match; in Congress they debate a waiting period for buying a gun. In family life there is a work and caretaking crisis; in the government they wrangle over unpaid medical leave. In the country there is poverty and massive deficit; in Washington they argue over John Sununu.

Permissive patriotism is deceptively simple. It's too easy to become a point of light along the parade route. But like permissive parenting, it covers up a lack of involvement and even caring. Mindless love -- my country right or wrong -- is a mushy substitute for duty.

Real patriotism should be demanding. It should differentiate -- my country right and wrong. It should impose ethical standards higher than being Number One. Patriotism isn't afraid of saying no. It embraces criticism as well as praise.

More than anything else, patriotism is not a spectator sport. It demands that people stay as engaged and committed as that first group who came together -- not for a parade but for a daring venture to which they signed their names and mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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