Uncle Sam Wants You.

When Uncle Sam wants you, make sure history is on your side.

I might have to write and run here, because Mary and I will soon be abandoning our cozy little hideaway along the bay front in St. Petersburg, FL. We’re exiting for home in the wee hours tomorrow morning to escape the horrendous traffic through Tampa. Then, after vegging out in Asheville, NC, we’ll embark on a more leisurely drive along about 400 miles of the amazing Blue Ridge Parkway.

This first two weeks of the month were basically a working vacation as I try to wrap up a book I’ve been working of for what seems way too long. It is about a case of injustice that involves a murder and subsequent conviction of a young man with what appears to be a lot of distorted and manufactured evidence. It is more complicated than that, but this has become all too common in the United States, as we see by the flood of exonerations of men and women who have served too much of their lives in prisons. Some have died there before their innocence was established. The one glaring difference in this case is that my victim of the criminal justice system was a middle-class white guy in a picture perfect Pennsylvania town.

It reminds me that too many of us are living in a dream world that everything about being American is better than anywhere else. I take pride in being an American, am grateful for the advantages I have been given in growing up in a loving family in a little town in which we all knew —and, for the most part, watched out for—each other. My kids grew up in a similar environment, seemingly safe and secure from the growing dangers that now drive many young parents today into a state of panic when their children are out of sight for a few minutes.

I see myself as a patriot, having served my country in a war in which I was probably too young and unsophisticated to understand why I was there. That’s how we Baby Boomers were brought up by our Greatest Generation parents. Some of my generation chose not to serve and chose protesting and draft dodging instead of fighting for a cause in which they didn’t believe. Turns out that they were right in their synopsis of the situation, if not always in the ways they chose to express their opposition. Some of their choices required more courage than mine.

I have since learned that all that we did leading up to my going to Vietnam in 1967-68 were not done for the noblest or most Democracy-friendly reasons. All you can do is learn from these experiences and hope you are smarter and better informed the next time Uncle Sam comes knocking at our collective door.

The expression popularized in the Vietnam era though born in the 18th Century— “Our Country Right or Wrong”— just doesn’t work any more. The other popular slogan of the time— “America: Love It or Leave It”— basically was an unfair justification for whatever we did, because the key word to define was “love.”

A patriot should want his or her country to be the best it can be and to be particularly attentive to things we may be doing “wrong.”

This is why we need to pay so much attention to history and make sure we teach our children well so they don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. A recent study has revealed that many of our textbooks from which our children are taught do not give a balanced presentation of civil rights in America, white supremacy and slavery-versus-state’s rights. There is no national standard for what history is taught in our public and other accredited schools so, with the subject matter left up to the states, we see that only two states mention or teach about white supremacy. Fifteen of 50 states do not mention one of the following two subjects n their public school textbooks: slavery or civil rights. Sixteen credit state’s rights as a cause of the Civil War, including four of the states abutting Pennsylvania. One of them is New York State. State’s rights is merely a justification for the right to own slaves and therefore dehumanizing another race.

It seems that Americans have a spotty history of tolerating amoral and insensitive behavior and causes if it is good for the economy or we can accept others as inferior.

So if you pay attention to such things, does that make you unpatriotic? Not if you care about your country, what it represents and if we act, as best we can, with the moral authority with which we have been bequeathed.

I think we tend to confuse nationalism and patriotism. The former is defined as “excessive or undiscriminating devotion” to your nation. That fits with “your country right or wrong.” A patriot should want his or her country to be the best it can be and to be particularly attentive to things we may be doing “wrong.” Loyalty to your country is part of patriotism, and some definitions include devotion, but not, in my opinion, to the extent of religious ardor or zeal, as some believe.

I guess I’m saying that we all have the right to follow our conscience as citizens, and the Constitution allows us to express ourselves on what we think is right or wrong, as long as we aren’t trampling on the rights and safety of others.

I like the way President Gerald R. Ford expressed it in the dark days following Watergate and the resignation of a president with whom Ford had served (fortunately not excessively) as Vice President:

“We will survive and become the stronger, not because of a patriotism that stands for love of country, but a patriotism that stands for love of people.”