At the observance of the 100th anniversary marking the end of the First World War, Donald Trump was criticized by world leaders for declaring himself to be a nationalist.” This criticism is justified, if you understand how nationalism was one of the causes of World War One and World War Two. For an American president to declare himself a nationalist flies in the face of the lessons of history.
But criticism is sometimes not welcomed. But criticism is the highest form of patriotism.
Recently I received some criticism from some o f my readers and social media friends about how I criticize elements of American history, specifically the militarism and nationalism that often blinds us to our nations shortcomings.
I want to emphasize how important it is to have a critical eye toward history, as it is the calling of all patriots to hold their nation to a high standard, and insure the greatness of this nation for future generations by calling out the moments when we as a nation fall short of our ideals. Keeping silent is not patriotism.
Silence is consent, as MLK, Jr. taught us. Remember too, the words of another great American who wrote, “I love my country all the time, and my government when it does the right thing. Let us not forget to see the difference between the soldiers and the military, the leaders and the nation. Forgetting that there is an essential difference between them is where we step first from the path blazed for us by the Founders and go astray from the future of freedom described in the Constitution.
I have been called many names in the course of my career as a historian and a teacher. The names are often unkind, but also ignorant of their meaning. I have been called a communist repeatedly. While I do work in public education, the salary may be low, but it is still a salary. I am still paid, unlike a Communist might want. I go to great lengths to teach my students about the origins of Communism, the history of the Communist Party in America and the differences between the theory as espoused by Karl Marx and the regimes that pretend to be communist, but in reality are just dictatorships. This contrast and comparison still gets me called a communist, however.
When I speak out about the lessons of history, war, racism and blind patriotism, I am often attacked. I have been called un-American. I have been told to get out of the country. I have been told that I am racist for speaking out about racism. I once had a parent demand that I not be allowed to teach her child because I was the “most un-American Caucasian” she had ever met. I think that the connection between my racial ancestry and my patriotism in her mind says a lot about her beliefs of what makes someone a good American.
These moments of anger and name calling are part and parcel of the job of a historian. It comes with the territory of a teacher. When you are engaged in opening the eyes of those around you to the facts and lessons of history, it is a dangerous ground to walk. Unlike other subjects, the lessons of history are often debatable. The meaning is often personal. The facts are often open to interpretation. One interpretation is seen to be equivalent of another, but this is not the case. If we accept that there are “good people on all sides” we risk falling onto moral equivalence with the worst of humanity and becoming victims of the errors of history all over again.
The value of history is to help us understand the past. What came before matters to us today. It offers wisdom of experience and lessons for our benefit and safety. The lessons of the past are interpretations. They are meaningless as facts, names and dates.
The meaning comes not from seeing the puzzle pieces of the past, but by piecing them together.
Nationalism is often portrayed as sacred and inherent in all who love the nation. This is a mistake. Patriotism is the love of a nation. Nationalism is the belief in the superiority of the nation, regardless of evidence or logic. Like racism, nationalism is an absence of thought, and absence of evidence. We are a nation founded upon the Enlightenment belief in reason and logic and evidence. Nationalism antithetical to our founding ideals.
The value of history is to give us context to understand the present. The lessons of the past help us to understand our current times by drawing comparisons and contrasts with what has already been done, seeing the outcome of those actions and determining if we wish those outcomes to happen again. It is a famous moral that doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. History helps us keep our sanity by not repeating the mistakes of the past.
Patriotism is grounded in this same belief. We study the past to understand how our nation has behaved, when it has strayed and when it has succeeded. We use the founding documents and ideals to measure the past, noting how our past wars, laws, leaders and experiences conform to those founding ideals. The ideals serve as out measurement. Patriots criticism when we fail to measure up to the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Patriots criticize leaders, activists, citizens and yes, even soldiers.
Those we empower with the privilege of fighting for us must be help to the highest standards of our ideals, because they are representative of those ideals and give the power to take a life in the name of defending those ideals.
When they fall short, they need to be criticized, or else the symbols of state take a greater importance than the principles upon which that state is founded. Patriots cannot let it be so.
The value of history is to guide our future. Unlike other subjects, the future is the subject of history. Where we will go, who we will become, and what our world will be are all the focus of historians. The value of history is that it makes our future come into focus. We set our goals, we work to improve, we reflect and try again. Ultimately all great achievements of mankind and every civilization have come out of a solid reading of history. It has been said that you cannot know where you are going if you do not know where you have been.
As I continue to write this blog, I will continue to criticize. I believe in history. It is not dead, it is not even finished yet. As a historian I an dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of those around me. I believe that it is a benevolent position. I hope that my readers will accept it as coming form a good place.
The criticism will not stop, because the love of humanity and this great nation is eternal.
Lastly, please enjoy the video of a great patriot, George Carlin. Be warned, however, as he uses some bad language in his defense of our ideals.
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