Giving Patriotism a Larger Purpose
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An Essay by NPR's Daniel Schorr
Oct. 21, 2001 -- In the weeks since the September 11th assault on American identity, we have witnessed an incredible, spontaneous outpouring of patriotism. It has been manifested in offerings of blood, rescue work, food and supplies, consolation for the bereaved and a general reaching out to one another.
Enlistments in AmeriCorps, the national youth service organization, have been on the rise since September 11th. And the flags, that ocean of flags… of pieces of cloth that bespeak our unity and pride. Bloomingdale's offered a Waterford crystal flag for $99. Lands' End offered to stitch a flag gratis on any purchased clothing. In wartime, we rally around the flag.
We also rally around the president, awaiting his signal for what burdens we must bear to vanquish the foe. That signal has not yet come.
I can remember President Franklin Roosevelt's Call to Sacrifice speech in April 1942, summoning Americans on the home front to accept a denial of creature comforts. Americans accepted cheerfully for the most part rationing of gasoline and meat, controls over wages and prices and the duty to collect tin cans.
"Will Americans be content to express their patriotism in a splurge of consumerism and Disneyland vacations? I doubt it. Nor would they long abide the exploitation of patriotism itself to serve narrow interests."
In the Korean War, President Truman announced a re-imposition of wage price controls and a steep increase in defense spending. He admonished every citizen to put aside personal interests for the good of the country.
In another kind of war -- the Cold War with the Soviet Union -- President Kennedy, who had paid his dues as a PT boat commander in World War II, called on Americans in his 1961 inaugural address to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship in the defense of liberty.
President Bush has indicated reluctance to ride the wave of patriotism with a call for subordinating personal, class and group interests to national interests. The message he has conveyed to the home front, which is not a phrase he would use, is that Americans should confound the terrorists by their normalcy.
In a September 21st address to Congress, the president said, “Americans are asking: ‘What is expected of us?’ I ask you to live your lives and hug your children.” In his October 11th, prime-time news conference, the president was asked why he has not called for sacrifice from the American people. He gave a confused answer that started by noting that Americans are sacrificing by long waits in line at airports.
Will Americans be content to express their patriotism in a splurge of consumerism and Disneyland vacations? I doubt it. Nor would they long abide the exploitation of patriotism itself to serve narrow interests.
What is needed before the wave of spontaneous patriotism dribbles away in special pleading is for the president to declare a larger purpose that will give patriotism something to latch onto.
That would involve saying that the government will bail out not only hurting industries, but hurting people. It will mean saying that tax cuts will be put on hold, and huge tax increases, bearing most heavily on the rich, will be needed to pay for public safety and public health and for rebuilding our stricken cities and our damaged economy.
Here's a line that Mr. Bush might like to use: Here at home, everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary -- not only to supply our fighting men, but to keep the economic structure of our country fortified and secure during the war and after the war. That comes from FDR's Call to Sacrifice in 1942.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.