A surge of patriotic sentiment has accompanied American victories in the Persian Gulf war. People are feeling good again about their fighting forces and their country. Contrasting this with our experience in latter stages of the Vietnam War, many Americans are happy about the revival of "old-fashioned patriotism."
Without wishing to disparage the waving of flags and the warm feelings that currently envelop America, may I suggest that patriotism has other dimensions that are much more important to the long-run well-being of this country.Some of these are readily recognized when cited. For example, good citizenship and patriotism are, to a large extent, synonymous. Those who keep informed about public affairs, who are actively involved with those civic organizations which seek the public interest rather than special-interest favors, who take part in political campaigns and vote on election day are helping make democracy work. That's patriotism, surely.
Running for public office can be a patriotic act, too - depending on one's motives. If the quality of the current crop of candidates is abysmal, and disinterested persons are convinced you could do better, setting aside your private affairs for awhile and serving the public may be one of the most patriotic things you can do.
Being politically active, however, isn't necessarily more patriotic than doing volunteer work for schools, hospitals, churches and various non-profit groups which work with drug addicts, alcoholics, the homeless and other distressed people.
Respect for the Bill of Rights is also patriotism. Supporting free speech for ideas you abhor, backing due process of law for unpleasant people and insisting on freedom for religious practices you reject all show respect for the principles America is supposed to stand for.
Brace yourself for this one. Almost nothing displays true patriotism as much, these days, as being willing to pay higher taxes. This nation is running a monstrous budget deficit, is unwilling to pay-as-we-go for the Persian Gulf war, and allows Operation Head Start, science and math education, our crumbling infrastructure, low-cost housing, various rehabilitation programs and certain environmental needs to be sadly neglected.
One can always say, of course, that if government eliminated all the waste, higher taxes wouldn't be needed. But there has always been and always will be waste - not only in public affairs but in private life as well. In your home and mine. So that easy excuse for evading responsibility is a cop-out pure and simple.
This nation needs higher taxes, and supporting politicians who are willing to ask financial sacrifices from us is 10 times, nay 100 times, more patriotic than waving the flag for hours on end.
Finally, do you know what's the single most patriotic thing most people can ever do? The thing that will help their country most? It's this: Be a good spouse, set a good example for your children and teach them the kind of values that will serve them well all the days of their lives.
A country's greatness lies not in its military might, its gross national product, or its artistic achievements but in the kind of people it produces and the values they live by. Our most important patriots are often humble, unsung folks whose daily lives quietly nourish the nation's deepest roots.
Waving the flag and displaying yellow ribbons are easy. Doing these other things isn't nearly so simple. But they are the things that count.
(Reo M. Christenson is an adjunct professor of political science at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.)