2002 Commencement Address - Patriotisms

181st Commencement Address
May 26, 2002
Tom Gerety

MY FATHER AND I HAD LOTS OF ARGUMENTS WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE, about lots of things: was capitalism moral? Was wealth? Was the government in the hands of evil people? Usually we fought on the phone, but not always. Sometimes we hung up laughing; sometimes we hung up in grim disagreement. Once he told me that I shouldn't bring my girlfriend Adelia home because she was anti-American. I hung up on him that night and for two weeks we didn't talk at all. During all my undergraduate years, in the latter half of the ’60s, we had plenty to fight about because of the war in Vietnam.

The best of these fights with my father–the most difficult and instructive–were the ones where he reached back into his own life to draw a lesson for me, often one that I resisted or refused. Then we could compare lives, or at least what we imagined our lives to be about.

One thing we could never agree on was what he called "service to one’s country." "When your country asks you to serve," he said, "you don't say no." His voice was intense and vulnerable in saying this to me. He seemed to put aside arguments about effective methods of protest, or about the justice or injustice of the war itself. He wanted to assert something much more basic, perhaps to him the most basic principle of all: You serve your country when your country–through its laws, its policies–says it needs you. You don’t ask questions; you don’t say no.

This was my father’s idea of patriotism. It was an idea he shared with nearly everyone who came of age during the Second World War. It was unquestioned and, for the most part, it was unquestioning.

In his case the idea had added force because he had not been able to serve during the war: in those days he had terrible asthma. It went away only in his late middle age. Throughout my childhood he had terrifying attacks, falling down wheezing, barely able to breathe for minutes at a time. In 1941, just after Pearl Harbor, he had enlisted in the Navy and made it to officers’ training school. An attack of asthma there led to a medical review and an involuntary but honorable discharge. He tried the Army but they found out about the asthma and rejected him too. He went through the war yearning to serve. Then his youngest brother Ricky was killed on the last day or two of the war in Germany: he was barely 18. Ricky’s death seemed to close off forever any argument about patriotism and the duty to serve one’s country: these were absolute imperatives for my father, made all the more absolute because his youngest brother seemed to him to have died in his stead.

Patriotism suggests many things, but none more clearly than love of country. The question we must all face as citizens of this and other countries is what to make of that love–or the lack of it–in ourselves and in others. Is it necessary? Does it impose duties of service? Can they be questioned or challenged? What sort of patriotism do we need now? Patriotism is a sentiment much more than it is an argument. As a sentiment it can grow into a passion, sometimes a dangerous uncontrollable passion. Still it is an important sentiment, and one that most nations nurture and encourage.

Most of us who are Americans have felt our patriotism achingly, overwhelmingly, during this tragic year since the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

The first lesson about patriotism is that it cannot be imposed or required. No sentiments can be compulsory, not even such basic sentiments as love of family or love of nation. Our history and the way we understand it will condition each of us to feel what we feel, in whatever complicated variants there are on the love and passion around us.

Compare what I felt during the Vietnam War with what my father felt during the Second World War. Both were expressions of patriotism. Mine took the form of enormous anguish about what my country was doing in Vietnam. I had heard the arguments for service, for war, and I had made some of them myself at the outset, in 1964, as a senior in high school and a freshman in college. Resisting a communist takeover, especially in the South, seemed a worthy and democratic end: the communists would not allow elections, or free speech, or freedom of worship; they would create a permanent tyranny. America represented democracy and freedom–and the willingness, as Kennedy had suggested in his inaugural, "to pay any price, to bear any burden. . . ."

But by the time I was a sophomore in college, this simple view seemed more and more untrue to what we were doing: our allies in South Vietnam were not pure democrats; many of them were corrupt and some were cowardly. Our enemies in the North were not only communists but nationalists, patriots, asserting the right of the Vietnamese to rule themselves without French or American protectors.

Sorting all this out, as best I could, I felt that I wanted to serve my country (as well as the people of Vietnam), but in a just and effective way. My father’s rule—that when your country asks, whatever it asks, you give it – that rule seemed to me not just wrong, but disastrously wrong. By comparison, my father’s generation, despite the great risks they took and the great sacrifices they made, saw few ambiguities in patriotism and the call of military service. For them there was good and there was evil: Hitler and his allies were, as Churchill called them, "monsters of evil" representing a "new dark age" for Europe and the world.

You bear a curious relation to the generation that fought Hitler. Some say that your challenges are similarly unambiguous, that you must resist evil, go to war against it. But most of us are uneasy about this analogy. The evil that we have identified is not a nation or a religion or even precisely a political movement. It is a technique: terrorism, the killing of civilians to make a political point or achieve a political end.

Against this evil, there is no one method of struggle and no sure policy. Our country will not ask you to serve in the manner of the Second World War or of Vietnam. The military is a separate and specialized profession now, one constituted by volunteers, recruits, who have joined on their own and without compulsion, without a draft. We honor those, including those from Amherst, who serve in this way, but they cannot be many–and they cannot carry all of the burden of patriotic service.

How then can you and I serve? If we feel patriotism, then what are we to do with it, how are we to express it and what are its duties?

First, I would say with my father that we owe an allegiance to our country and that patriotism is a nearly inescapable sentiment. Some of you are citizens of more than one country; others are citizens of countries other than the United States. So the question arises not so much of patriotism but patriotisms: might the world do better to rid itself of national feeling, of national loyalties and passions?

This is a powerful idea and one that may tempt many of you.

In 1900, as an old man, his great novels and stories long behind him, Tolstoy, wrote a passionate denunciation of "the hypnotism of patriotism. . ." it is, he said, "an unnatural, irrational, and harmful feeling, the cause of a great part of the ills from which mankind suffers. . ." Patriotism should be "suppressed and eradicated by all rational means. . ." He had in mind, I think, the way patriotism can lead on to fanaticism, to ideas of tribal purity and tribal triumph.

As an antidote to this poison, the classicist Martha Nussbaum urges the creed of the Stoics. "I am a citizen of the world," Diogenes Laertius said, in Greek a cosmou polites, a cosmopolitan.

This is generous and noble, but is it workable? My own view is that the rejection of national loyalty is utopian and futile. There may be a few who can live without national attachments, as there are a few who can live without families. But most of us feel these national attachments deeply. The challenge, then, is not the utopian one of suppressing or eradicating patriotism but the practical one, the political one, of disciplining it and making sense of it. If patriotism is an inescapable sentiment, as I think it is, then we must make good use of it (just as we seek to make good use of the passions we feel for friends, lovers, and family).

Second, I would say, this time with Socrates (and perhaps, ever so gently, against my father), that our patriotism can never be unquestioning. There are times, we all know, when the quibbler and the hero part company. In emergencies we need heroes–whether to fight a Hitler or to stop a terrorist. But in preparing for emergencies, and in the everyday work of citizenship, we need quibblers and questioners. Indeed, they too should be our heroes.

The present war against terrorism illustrates this. We can all agree on measures of security at airports and in skyscrapers and perhaps even at borders. We have much more trouble agreeing on the what measures we can take–military, economic, political—to assure our children and grandchildren that we will leave them a human world better and safer than the one we now confront. It was said often during the war in Vietnam that we needed to win hearts and minds to our side. I will not be so naive as to adopt that slogan for present use. What is clear is that hardened hearts, fanatical minds, can now terrorize cities, nations, and the world. And none of us can say for sure that we know how to bring together, say, the Hindu and the Moslem, the Hutu and the Tutsi, the Protestant and the Catholic, the Arab and the Jew, the American and the anti-American.

It is uncomfortable, even infuriating, to entertain challenges and criticisms in the midst of war and emergency. But it will be much worse not to heed doubts about our policies in a prolonged and uncertain struggle. What should our nation stand for in the world? How prompt should we be in military response? What is the right balance between constitutional rights and emergency measures? What is the best way to counter the intoxications of patriotic and religious fervor?

Finally, I hope that yours will always be a generous patriotism. And I mean this in two senses: generous, first, towards others in their patriotisms, their national feeling and pride as Afghan or Turk, Ghanaian or Venezuelan, Palestinian or Israeli, as Americans of the right or Americans of the left. An ungenerous patriotism is one that denies to others what you seek for yourself and for your own nation or people. It is, at bottom, a chauvinism: me and my country over you and yours. But in a world as crowded with nations as ours, our patriotism—all patriotism—must be generous towards and tolerant of others. It must be restrained and respectful of the deep differences among peoples. To some this will seem an oxymoron, a sharp contradiction or absurdity. All patriotism is chauvinistic, they will say, with Tolstoy. But I myself hold for a disciplined and informed love of country, one rooted, no doubt, in emotion, but one improved by reason and thought—a love of country that rejoices in the love that others feel in turn for their countries.

There remains an additional and more particular sense in which this nation, America, requires a generous patriotism. Let me cite from a recent learned text: in the Spiderman movie, the just bitten Peter Parker has a touching exchange with his Uncle Ben, an exchange that suits you and America both. "Knowledge is power," Ben says to Peter (who is about to discover his own power), "But with great power comes great responsibility." Uncle Ben echoes John Kennedy: "Of those to whom much is given, much is required."

This is the most powerful nation on earth. To a large extent, its knowledge—your knowledge—is also its power. It is also the richest nation the world has ever known. It is a generous nation, one that gives in many, many ways. But generosity, like patriotism has its flood tides and its droughts. By some important measures, we have become ungenerous, abroad and even at home. "The great empire," St. Augustine said of Rome, "is a great piracy. . ." Our empire, in my view, is not a piracy; but nor is it the City of God on earth. Two empirical measures stand out for me. Our non-military foreign aid to poor countries, measured per capita or by overall wealth, is among the lowest of all the democratic and developed nations we look to as our close allies. It is a small fraction of what Japan or Denmark, Holland or France or Germany gives to poorer nations. This should not be so. It is not worthy of us or of our patriotism. A second measure is no less worrisome. Our economy has become, increasingly, an engine of prosperity and a model for the world. But its rewards have become, increasingly, skewed towards those of us who are educated and successful. I do not say that any simple reforms will bridge the gaps between rich and poor, here or abroad. But a generous nation, a responsible nation, in a position of overwhelming power and success, must prove to itself and to the world that it seeks honestly and assiduously to help all share in the earth's and humanity’s wealth. To us then, and to you, much is given and much will be required. I salute you and your loved ones, your nations, your ambitions, your ideals, your knowledge. Good luck and Godspeed.


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