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Of Patriotism and Un-noticed Outcomes

Bill Meredith

When their leaders decided that Congress should convene in New York last month, most members of the House and Senate were delighted at the opportunity to parade their piety and compassion before the public. A conspicuous exception was West Virginia’s crusty Senator Robert Byrd. In a moment of candor rare among politicians, he said, "I think Congress should be here [in Washington], working. There’s not anything I can do by going up there. Lord knows, there’s not anything more that can be said about our sorrow."

I didn’t agree completely with the Senator, but I understood where he was coming from; it was the kind of thing my father might have said. I remember going to the funeral of an old family friend when I was about 10 years old. My dad was visibly saddened, but as soon as the burial was completed, he got us started for home, noting that we had to be back by milking time. The bereaved family understood; they were from a generation that had learned to survive by being mentally tough and unsentimental, and they would have done the same thing if they’d been in our place. I learned a lesson from that: it does not mean we are callous or lacking in compassion for those who have suffered loss if we admit that, for the rest of us, life goes on.

Nevertheless, I think if I had been in Senator Byrd’s place, I’d have gone to New York. He was right in saying nothing more can be said; except for the poem read by Poet Laureate Billy Collins, the speeches I heard were untainted by originality, and, in many cases, self-serving. But the simple fact that the leaders of the nation took the time to be there seemed to make the people who lost members of their families and friends feel better; and to the extent that it did, the trip was worthwhile.

A year ago, I wrote that the world did not change as a result of the terrorist attacks; rather, it was our perception of the world that changed. I still believe that is true. The world was a messy, dangerous place before the attacks; we as a nation thought that as the sole superpower, we were invulnerable. But I have to admit that, for some people, perception is reality. The trauma suffered by those who lost friends and family, and by those who were present at the sites and survived, is real. Their world did change, and they deserve every manner of support we can give them.

Whether life goes on for the rest of us seems to depend on which generation we belong to. With the caveat that there are many individual exceptions, I think people under the age of 30 were most severely affected. Unlike the two previous generations, most of them had not heretofore lived through a single catastrophic event that had the effect Pearl Harbor had on my generation, or that the Kennedy and King assassinations had on those growing up in the ‘60’s. My generation grew up in the Depression and World War II; we had to be frugal, self-disciplined and cautious to survive. But the fact that we did survive taught us that life goes on; it made us basically optimistic and patriotic, and instilled in us the belief that government can be well-intentioned.

The generation of "baby boomers" were born under the mushroom clouds that heralded the beginning of the Cold War. They were idealistic about the environment and civil rights; they joined the Peace Corps with enthusiasm. They were less concerned with material things, and completely lacking in caution where sex and drugs were concerned. Viet Nam made them resentful of authority and cynical about the intentions of the government; "You can’t trust anyone over 30" was their byword. Their attitudes changed as they reached their 40’s and 50’s, and it was amusing to see them adopt some (but not all) of our values. They, too, learned that life goes on.

The "under-thirty" generation is different than its predecessors. The national malaise of Watergate was not a catastrophic event for them, though it left them confused. In the ‘80’s, Teflon-coated Ronald Reagan convinced them that there was no need to worry about the environment, the national economy was a simplistic matter of unending growth, and government officials like those involved in Iran-Contra were not subject to the same standards of personal integrity as the rest of us. In the ‘90’s, the Gulf War was a crisis to be survived by the few who participated in it directly, but for the rest it was a television spectacular, almost a video game. And at the end of the decade, Bill Clinton offered them the proposition that moral behavior isn’t really important if you’re smart enough and glib enough. For most of this generation, September 11 was the first real catastrophe they had to face, and coming to terms with the fact that life goes on will be the great formative event in their lives.

It is this generation that worries me most, because, as every graduation speaker has told them, they are the future of the nation. But they have not been challenged by the national leadership, the media, or, in many cases, the educational system, to think critically, to distinguish between facts, opinions and propaganda, or to deal with complexity and ambiguity on an intellectual level. Hence they are vulnerable to the un-noticed changes that have occurred in our culture as a result of 9/11.

The upsurge in patriotism was noticed immediately; what went un-noticed was the way it was exploited. People seemed not to see the difference between the genuine patriotism that led everyone to display the flag in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and the blatant play for audience support by professional wrestlers and boxers who wear the stars and stripes on their shorts. This lack of discernment was quickly and profitably exploited by the purveyors of country music, who filled their pockets as they filled the airways with lyrics that run the gamut from mawkish sentimentalism to vulgarity… recall that Peter Jennings got more criticism than praise for not allowing one of the more repugnant examples to be performed on his Fourth of July program. And it has exposed us to a new level of hypocrisy as we hear "God Bless America" intoned at the end of speeches by politicians who see the inside of a church only on occasions when their constituents will notice them, and whose private lives and policy positions bear no relation to Christ’s teaching.

The most dangerous change was that after 9/11, government officials became immune to criticism. For some time it appeared that the President and the Attorney General were the only ones who noticed this. The public rightly responded to Mr. Bush’s call for unity in the days after the attacks. But in the ensuing weeks and months he took advantage of this public support to make decisions and policy changes that will have potentially disastrous long-term effects on matters having nothing to do with terrorism. His refusal to support, or even attend, the Conference on Sustainable Growth must be interpreted either as callous disregard for, or unawareness of, the most fundamental problem facing humankind, the unchecked growth of the world’s population and its inability to feed itself. This should have caused outrage in the media and protests on campuses all over the country; instead, criticism even from political opponents was muted and timid. Likewise, his changes in policy on forest management are at worst biased toward industrial exploitation and at best insufficiently analyzed; yet environmentalists are curiously silent. And just last month, under pressure from the energy industry, the White House ordered the EPA to remove the section on Global Warming from its annual report, despite the fact that 2002 was the hottest summer since 1930.

It is important that we support our leaders in times of national emergency, but it is equally important, indeed it is a patriotic duty, to be critical if their actions are precipitous or have irreversible consequences. To remain uninformed and to avoid public debate at times when vital decisions are being made, and to ignore the chance to elect leaders with wisdom instead of those pandering to special interests, are the most unpatriotic things we can do. The two older generations must lead by example; we must teach the younger generation this true meaning of patriotism as we help them to get on with their lives. This would be the best way we could honor the anniversary of 9/11.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith