Patriotism is as natural as a child’s love for its mother. We all want to love the land of our birth, the land of our ancestors, the land that holds their bones.

We want to believe that our music, our food, our athletes are the best. We want to remember our heroes and our legends, and pass down their stories that our children will treasure them also. Pure patriotism is pure love, like any other. But in a strange kind of reverse alchemy, the human heart has taken the shimmering gold of patriotism and turned it into the poison of war and oppression.

Yet, patriotism does more than pit nation against nation in usually meaningless battles of vanity and chauvinism. Patriotism also divides nations against themselves. In every society there is at least one group that considers itself more entitled, more authentic, more virtuous. They rarely justify their sense of superiority, a sense that is taught in the cradle. Rather, they prove it by impugning the patriotism of others.

In America, as historian Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, we also have a unique strain of super patriots. Because we are a nation of immigrants, each group trying to claim its place at the national table, many first- and second-generation Americans seek to assert their “Americanism” by wrapping themselves in the flag and being the loudest, most strident patriots in the room.

Whatever their reasons, by setting themselves on the pedestal of patriotism, the super patriots can point to other groups and individuals and declare them a threat to society because they hold dangerous ideas and they associate with dangerous people. This entitles them to denounce, persecute, jail, even murder “less patriotic” citizens, all in the name of protecting “our way of life.”

We all know how the game is played. Even as proponents cheered last week’s two Supreme Court decisions more or less legalizing gay marriage, right-wing Christians spoke darkly of the end of civilization and American society. Gay marriage is not just an alternative lifestyle, they said. It’s a threat to all decent people, and all decent people have a right to hate and persecute those who practice it. Even the five justices who struck down the Defense of Marriage Act were denounced on Fox News for “betraying” the Constitution and the will of the people.

It seems to me that patriotism, like art and literature, is best judged through the lens of time. In the past century, America has endured several waves of political paranoia, whipped up by super-patriots in pursuit of political power. They launched “red scares” which distorted our politics and foreign policy for decades. America stumbled in Vietnam, built up a monstrous and unaffordable military establishment, refused to recognize Communist China for decades, and still refuses to recognize the government of Cuba, because our leaders were afraid of being called “soft on Communism.”

Richard Nixon launched his political career as a super-patriot, accusing his electoral opponents and political adversaries of being communist sympathizers and “pinkos.” Even as president, he questioned the patriotism of anti-war critics, not allowing them to have an honest difference of opinion. But we know how Nixon’s career ended. Patriotism truly is the last refuge of scoundrels.

J. Edgar Hoover was another super-patriot, a man of egomaniacal lust for power and secrecy. He was so determined to protect America from Martin Luther King, Jr. that he had the civil rights leader followed and bugged and tormented for years. Today King is honored with a holiday in his honor and a memorial on the National Mall. Hoover is little more than a receding nightmare in the national memory.

Now Edward Snowden has been accused of treason and other crimes by the federal government for telling us that the National Security Agency has been collecting records of our phone calls and emails. He calls himself a whistle-blower. The fools at Fox and elsewhere have called him a traitor, with all the dark intimations of what that entails. I think it’s too early to judge, but at this time it appears that he was not acting in league with any foreign government or agency or for any kind of financial or other gain.

Ultimately, we should be asking ourselves what is the worth of patriotism in the 21st century? Some day the peoples of the Earth may recognize that we all share the same homeland, the home of all our ancestors, all our heroes, all our legends. It is the source of all life and all sustenance, and we must protect it from the technologies and the corporations that seek to poison our air, our water, our food. Those are the traitors we need to be on guard against.

Love your Mother.

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