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Whose Patriotism Is This, Anyway?

Story by
Nancy Joseph

A Vietnam veteran hoists a flag on Veteran’s Day. His neighbor attends Occupy Seattle rallies. Both claim to be patriotic. And both may be right, says Christopher Parker, the Stuart A. Scheingold Social Justice Professor and an associate professor of political science.

In a new seminar course on patriotism, taught by Parker during winter quarter, students explored what it means to be patriotic from a philosophical, historical, empirical, and theoretical perspective. Parker says that while most people identify patriotism with love of country, what that actually means is open to interpretation.

“Political philosophers often identify patriotism with a commitment to the values on which the country is founded,” he explains. “With this in mind, how can both Martin Luther King and White Supremacists lay claim to it? Or more recently, how can the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement both claim patriotism?”

Patriotism Seminar

Professor Christopher Parker, right, with Nick Hanauer. Media credit: Jacob Lambert

Parker has been fascinated with patriotism for more than a decade, since writing a book about African American veterans. More recently, he has been researching the Tea Party movement for another soon-to-be-published book. So when he learned that a UW philosophy alumnus was interested in supporting the development of a course on patriotism, he jumped at the chance to design and teach it.

The alumnus, Nick Hanauer (‘81), is an entrepreneur with a passion for politics and social justice. He coauthored a book about patriotism, The True Patriot, with Eric Liu in 2007. “During the Bush years, Eric and I were so frustrated by what George Bush was doing and what he stood for, but we were equally frustrated with the lack of moral intellectual responsibility from the left,” explains Hanauer. “We were very activist in our separate ways, and we thought we should be able to at least articulate for ourselves what we care about. We planned to spend a few weeks working through that question on a whiteboard. Instead it turned into a two-year project on patriotism.”

Having tussled at length with the difficult subject, Hanauer saw great value in encouraging UW students to do the same. He provided funding for the seminar course in hopes that it might serve as a pilot for a potentially larger lecture course. “The purpose of the University is to mint citizens,” says Hanauer. “I don’t think you can be a citizen without having thought carefully about these issues. We all hold reflexive beliefs, and it can be valuable to go back to square one and look at why you believe what you believe.”

That was certainly the case for Anna Ogi, a political science major who came to the course with the idea that patriotism was a “strictly conservative notion—a rhetorical tool that drew upon glorified moments of American history to promote unquestioning loyalty and faith.” The class changed Ogi’s mind. “I learned that patriotism transcends the ability to be ‘owned’ by any political party or faction,” she says.

The course began with an introduction to political theory on patriotism, which tends to link patriotism to sacrifice. Parker then layered American history over this framework, beginning with the American Revolution. Our nation’s earliest patriots, he explains, were determined to break away from the Empire to attain freedom and equality. “Studying the American Revolution gave the students a foundation of what patriotism should look like,” says Parker. “It was the baseline. Every week, we revisited that.”

Patriotism Seminar

After Nick Hanauer visited Christopher Parker's Patriotism seminar as a guest speaker, student Anna Ogi asked him to sign a copy of his book. Media credit: Jacob Lambert

As the country changed, so did citizens’ ideas about patriotism. It was tied to a rise in nationalism in the late 1800s, and then to an “Americanization campaign” that pressured U.S. citizens to assimilate after the turn of the century. “They were expected to jettison who they were and where they came from,” says Parker. “This is where the term ‘melting pot’ came from.” Patriotism shifted increasingly to the right throughout the 20th century, capped by the Vietnam War and the Reagan and Bush years. “I wanted the students to get a sense of this—that patriotism didn’t start out on the Right. What it has meant to be a patriot is historically contingent.”

And the Tea Party, which Parker has studied in depth? “That’s not what patriotism should be about,” he says. “It should be about sacrifice—putting country above individual interests, above self. Without fail, the Tea Party gravitates to the more individualistic approach in which they put self over country.”

For those who might label some of Parker’s views as, well, unpatriotic, he assures that he balances all viewpoints. In fact, says Parker, who served in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve for a decade, “I’m not completely on the progressive side myself. It depends on the issue.” But he is comfortable sharing his views and encourages students to do the same. “I told students in the seminar to feel free to speak their mind. And they did. It made for really interesting discussions.”

Senior Michaela Ogden appreciated the open environment. “Everyone contributed a very different perspective,” she says of the 17 students in the class, who ranged from outspoken liberals to conservative ROTC recruits. “Everyone was respectful and supportive of each other. It’s very difficult to find a class where you can engage in conversations about contentious issues at the level we did. It is a very difficult task to create a class environment in which all students are comfortable discussing these issues without feeling vulnerable.”

For Parker, those difficult conversations made the work of designing the course worthwhile. “It was a labor of love,” he says of the experience. “I can’t wait to do it again. In my ten years of teaching, this has been the most enjoyable class I’ve taught.”

Ogi, who’s looking toward graduation, knows that lessons learned will serve her for years to come. “The class was invaluable not only to my study of political science, but also my role as a citizen,” she says. “It was an honor to be part of it.”