By the time this essay is published the flags will have been taken down and the odor of the fireworks of Independence Day will have dissipated. Rand McNally will have moved on in their search for America’s most patriotic city. The official fanfare that accompanied the dedication of “the rocks” will be history.
When all the talk of patriotism and the push to impress Rand McNally was going around it seemed a bit out of place to me. I thought of being amused, but came to the conclusion there was nothing amusing about it. I actually found myself getting angry. It wasn’t because I’m less a patriot than the sponsors of the dog and pony show. I was upset because I believe that those who were pushing the show had a misplaced sense of what patriotism is, or should be, all about.
In April, 1775, British author Samuel Johnson, made a remarkable statement – “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Was Johnson saying that there was something inherently wrong with being a patriot? Far from it. A year earlier Johnson had published a pamphlet titled “The Patriot.” A small sample of what he wrote follows:
“It ought to be deeply impressed on the minds of all who have voices in this national deliberation, that no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot. No other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.”
“A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers everything to the common interest.”
Johnson saw clearly that there was more to being a patriot than beating the drums. Patriotism, as he saw it, was a state of mind and heart that put self-interest on the shelf and elevated a higher motive. To the patriot, a person’s neighbors, his community, and his country were the paramount interests.
These are some of the ingredients that have been missing in the rush to impress Rand McNally or to serve a few narrow interests at the expense of the people who pay the bills and do the serving.
There’s something else that’s been missing. A lot of true patriots are being passed by, as if their service to this community and country mean nothing unless they serve the narrow interests of the few.
I moved to Emporia twelve years ago. Over the years I’ve had many opportunities to talk with a neighbor named Terry Bassler. Terry is a transplant to Emporia. He hails from Oklahoma. I have fond memories of our brief conversations as Terry walked his dog, Mattie, by our house in the cool of the evening. Terry is a plain spoken man. He has a wonderful drawl when he speaks. He’s honest to a fault. In fact, he’s downright unimpeachable. I remember talking to him about his orders to deploy to Iraq with his National Guard unit. It wasn’t much of a conversation. I thanked him and told him to be careful. I told him I’d be praying for him. About three months or so after he deployed we got word that he’d been wounded. Not long after that he came home with pins screwed into his leg, courtesy of an explosive device of some kind. Just seeing the pain he was going through made me wince. I see Terry from time to time these days. I’ve never heard him complain. He just keeps plugging away, in his own quiet way.
I don’t think I’ve ever met him, but I occasionally read something he’s posted to the Gazette’s forums. His name is Matt Slater. The last I heard he was serving a tour in Afghanistan. Before he deployed Matt, along with some of his fellow entrepreneurs, fought the proposed smoking ban. He lost that battle, then shipped out. He occasionally comments on things here at home. He’s never complained about serving his country. He’s one of those “fire eaters” the high and mighty around town love to marginalize.
I find it quite ironic.
One of the great characters in 20th century literature was an old German soldier named Katcinsky, from Erich Remarque’s classic “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Kat, as he was affectionately known, was the grizzled old veteran the younger soldiers relied on in difficult times. When the younger soldiers wondered how to end the bloody war, Kat came up with an ingenious solution. The King and the Kaiser would meet, in their underwear, clubs in hand¸ in a field.
I think the solution is timeless. Maybe it’s time for our leaders to stop beating the drum. Maybe it’s time to ship them “over there” Maybe then they’ll learn what patriotism is all about.