Is too much patriotism bad for America?

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem at a  San Francisco 49ers game has caused a broad national debate.

Kaepernick performed his act before thousands of fans and millions on television to bring attention to a particular cause — the ongoing killings of black citizens by police officers throughout the nation.  It did that, of course, but it also has prompted a broader question:  Just exactly what constitutes patriotism and can there be too much patriotism?

Recently and particularly since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation has been subjected to an excess of phony patriotism; American flags are festooned all over the place.  If you’re a candidate running for office, you are constantly flanked by a phalanx of red, white and blue, regardless of your party.  Sporting events of all types are awash in patriotic symbols.

All this flag-waving is much more than an innocent show of patriotism; it reinforces the nationalistic trend that blinds us from the truth and that more often than not colors our thinking about the role of the United States in the world.

Extreme nationalism is dangerous; it leads to dictatorial rule.  Witness how Adolf Hitler stirred up support for the Third Reich and its unconscionable strategies.  He did it with constant showing of the Nazi flag, with rousing patriotic marches and with other reminders of how great that nation was, even when it was slaughtering millions of people.

In more modern times, witness how Kim Jong Un has kept his North Korean people in line with the same kind of imagery.  Just recently the New York Times reported that the Chinese government has required all school children to view a 90-minute documentary on the “Long March” of 1934-36, turning it into a victory for the then-fledgling Communist Party, when it was actually a retreat.  The Chinese government is engaged in a constant propaganda campaign to indoctrinate its citizens.  It’s a reality of all totalitarian governments.

To be sure, the United States is a truly great nation; it’s still among the most powerful in the world, both militarily and economically.  Its success comes from its democratic underpinnings and it is indeed the world’s longest surviving democracy.  But we are wrong to think that the world circulates around us, that we can continue to wall ourselves and act independently, and that our nation always acts in the wisest and most humane way.


North Korea’s extreme nationalism fuels blind allegiance to their leader.  It is an extreme form of patriotism.

After the end of World War II, a significant number of Americans believed it was important for the U.S. to shed some of its sovereignty and participate in the community of nations.  Some even proposed forming a world federal government, a United States of the World so to speak.  Obviously that never happened, but the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did.  Although the nations retain their sovereignty in both the UN and NATO, the nations often act in a collective spirit.

Today, we live in a world that festers new and different types of terrors; we can’t afford to think the oceans protect us from direct harm in a war, as they did in all our wars up to the 21st Century.  Now the threats can end up in the streets of any community of the nation.  The only way to protect our future is to face the issues honestly and openly.  We need to more fully understand what turns people to terrorism, both at home and abroad.  And we can’t do that without looking at the problems openly and critically.  We can’t afford to be blindfolded by a patriotism that declares:  My country right or wrong!

Yes, we must honor our flag.  It is my hope, however, that as we honor the flag we recognize that we’re honoring a proud nation that has the world’s most diverse population, that it has the strongest and most continuous democracy and that it has achieved unexpected economic successes for its people.  We must also recognize that sometimes our people and our elected leaders have not always done the right thing, that they may have engaged in foreign adventures unwisely and committed cruel and inhumane acts, that we have subjugated whole peoples by removing them from their lands or by supporting slavery and then institutional racism and discrimination.

Colin Kaepernick was being patriotic when he knelt down; he’s telling all of us that we have some ills in our nation and that they must be resolved to save this great nation.

Yes, let’s honor the flag, but let’s do it without being deafened by singing too loudly or blinded by seeing too much, red, white and blue.  Kenneth Germanson, Sept. 26, 2016


“Proud to be an American.”

“Proud to be an American.”  How easy that comes off the lips.  Of course, we’re proud to be living in the world’s most free, most interesting, most innovating nation.

Are we any different though than the Brit? Or the Russians? Or, heaven forbid, the Cubans?  Or any other nation you can think of.

I’m also proud to be a Wisconsin fan, a Packers fan, a Brewers fan.  Does that make me better than the Northwestern fan who also roots for the hated Bears or the perennial losing Cubs?

All this breast-thumping is OK when you’re rooting for a football, baseball or other sports teams.  Afterwards, you can usually enjoy a beer with a friend who may root for the other guy.

But when it comes to being an American, there’s a tendency for most of us to believe we are No. 1, that we are the BEST there is.  That’s something called “American exceptionalism,” and it causes us to think that we as a nation are omnipotent, that we are the strongest, bravest, finest nation in the world and that we can conquer all and everyone.

Let’s all realize that the United States IS exceptional.  We are the world’s longest lasting democracy, no easy fete in the life of nations.  We have survived some terrible internal conflicts, not the least of which was the Civil War.  We have transferred control of our government to opposing parties peacefully time after time without a military coup.  Our capitalistic system has driven the economies of the world, has led the way in innovations and provided, in the past, an enviable standard of living.

Lest we be too arrogant, let us all realize the United States has many things that bring shame instead of pride.

No, we don’t have the world’s best health care system, as we rank well down the list of nations when considering infant mortality rates, length of life and access to health care.  Of course, for those who can afford it due to health insurance protections (not available to perhaps 50 million citizens), our health care can be the best, as this writer must attest from personal experience recently.  But for so many we fail miserably.

Our income disparity between the very rich and the poor is growing more and more, leaving many families without hope of ever rising out of their decrepit neighborhoods and dysfunctional situations.

As our international affairs go, we must realize, too, that we are NOT omnipotent. Certainly our struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan must tell us that, short of committing millions of our own armed forces, we can never win the total victory many still think is possible.  Vietnam proved that, as did Korea, nearly 60 years ago, as we had to agree to a permanent partition.  The writer is old enough to remember when politicians blamed Presidents Truman and Roosevelt for “losing” China, blaming them for being unable to halt the Communist takeover from the inept and corrupt government of Chang Kai Shek.  It would have taken an allout military crusade then to halt the onslaught of the masses in revolutionary China.

Rooting for the home team is fine.  But as we stand to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the next athletic event or place an American flag on our front lawns, let us realize those actions are but a symbol of our nation.  Real patriotism demands more of us:  It demands that we become informed citizens so that we can require our leaders to make wise decisions, that we look beyond the outright lies and distortions peddled by the charlatans of TV punditry and radio talk shows, and that we campaign to correct the many wrongs and shortcomings of our nation so that we can honestly say:  “I’m proud to be an American.”