Sunday, July 25, 2010

In Search of Wisdom and Simplicity: Life as if People Mattered

[For] too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product . . . if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead . . . and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage . . . it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
--Robert F. Kennedy (presidential campaign speech, University of Kansas, 1968).

It has been nearly four years since I gave up a career as a federal prosecutor to join the private sector. Unlike many of my former colleagues who left the U.S. Attorney’s Office to work for large law firms, I chose to work in a small regional office of a worldwide corporate investigations firm, where I often am asked to assess and investigate corporate malfeasance, fraud, and other forms of business misconduct. My work is interesting and I like my colleagues, many of whom had prior careers in government, academia, law enforcement, and journalism. In making the transition, however, I quickly discovered that the day-to-day operations of the profit-driven world of the private sector are, philosophically and operationally, worlds apart from a life in government. No longer is the primary or only objective of my work to do the best I can on all of my assigned cases. The concerns now are with billable hours, generated revenues, business development, and gross profits. As I work for a subsidiary of a large, multinational financial services and risk management conglomerate that fills the ranks of the Fortune 500, my value to the company and our regional office’s value to the larger operation are measured in strictly quantitative terms – key performance indicators, gross margins, originated revenue and utilization. I understand the need for such systems of measurement, seemingly objective considerations of productivity and output which help direct the company’s strategic investments and resource allocations. The bottom line, however, is profit, and the need to maximize profits is the company’s raison d’ĂȘtre.

The pressures of competition add another, impersonal dimension to the workings of private enterprise. The large corporate law firms of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington are a great example of this. These firms consist of hundreds of extremely bright and talented individuals who make a lot of money, live in nice houses, drive fancy cars, and send their kids to Ivy League colleges. But many of the professionals employed in these firms seem lifeless and unhappy. When I speak with them, I can often sense their underlying distress and impending pressures. My work has provided me a window into their world, in which many of the most highly compensated employees are miserable, overworked and intensely pressured, or on the opposite end, bored and uninspired. And in certain corporate environments, employees often toil in sterile, spiritually-debased, cubicle-filled environments five days a week, 50 weeks a year, simply to make enough money to support their affluent lifestyles.

In the modern day corporation, the spiritual and soulful needs of the human beings that make up the workforce are often ignored. Overlooked is the human toll that impersonal, strictly monetary measurements of success or failure have on those who choose to work in profit driven enterprises. The demands of the marketplace rule, everything has a price and nothing is sacred outside of its market value. For practical reasons, the things that matter to the inner lives of human beings – non-economic values such as beauty, compassion, thoughtfulness, and creativity – are not allowed to surface.

Business success is driven by monetary and financial measurements and little else. It is why the majority of corporate CEO’s have backgrounds in finance – men and women who have produced virtually nothing in their lives, but who understand how to maximize the important statistics that drive the modern economy – short-term profits, stock prices, and earnings-to-assets ratios. On a national scale, we are driven by key economic indicators, measures of gross domestic production, the Dow Jones industrial average, and the consumer price index. The national economic policies of most Western democracies are based on the assumption that unlimited economic growth is possible, and indeed necessary to sustain employment, productivity, and ever expanding wealth. In the United States, it is how we hope to eventually balance the federal budget, re-build our infrastructure, and reduce unemployment as we continue to allow gross inequities in the distribution of wealth; as long as the pie continues to get bigger for all, no one is particularly concerned that the largest pieces are cut for a small few, leaving the crumbs to be divided among the masses.

During my senior year in college I read a book by E.F. Schumacher, a German-born economist who authored the seminal work, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973), widely considered one of the 100 most influential works published since World War II. I recently took a second look at this admittedly out-dated treatise and found that, surprisingly, its perspective remains fresh and relevant. Schumacher notes that, according to traditional economic theory, unlimited economic growth is “obtainable only if we employ those powerful human drives of selfishness, which religion and traditional wisdom universally call upon us to resist.” Indeed, for most economists, it is essentially greed and envy that drive the modern economy and contribute to its success. Schumacher suggests an alternative view:
If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things as they really are, of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his very successes become failures. If whole societies become infected by these vices, they may indeed achieve astonishing things but they become increasingly incapable of solving the most elementary problems of everyday existence. The Gross National Product may rise rapidly: as measured by statisticians but not as experienced by actual people, who find themselves oppressed by increasing frustration, alienation, [and] insecurity. . . .
What if the assumptions and preconceptions which form the foundation of modern economics are obsolete, or were never correct? As history professor Theodore Roszak, author of The Making of a Counter-Culture, asked in his introduction to Small Is Beautiful, “What if there stir, in all those expertly quantified millions of living souls beneath the statistical surface, aspirations for creativity, generosity, brotherly and sisterly cooperation, natural harmony, and self-transcendence which conventional economics . . . only works to destroy? . . . And what sort of science is it that must, for the sake of its predictive success, hope and pray that people will never be their better selves, but always be greedy social idiots with nothing finer to do than getting and spending, getting and spending?”

There is an interesting essay in Small Is Beautiful entitled, “Buddhist Economics”, in which Schumacher, a Roman Catholic, explains the purpose of work from the Buddhist point of view: “to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” Buddhist economics is thus very different from the economics of modern materialism, which preaches that the most efficient and productive economies are ones that maximize production of material goods at the lowest possible cost in labor and capital, resulting in a high degree of specialization, assembly lines and cubicles, in which employees are given pre-defined tasks with little room for creativity and individual thought. By contrast, for the Buddhist:
To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.
That we could structure our economic systems and businesses in ways that do not rely on the motives of self-interest and greed, that instead embrace the complexity of the human condition, is for most of us who grew up conditioned on Western thought, very difficult to understand. We are used to measuring our standard of living by the amount of money we make and the quantity of goods we consume, always assuming that one who acquires more is “better off” than one who acquires less. As Schumacher notes, “A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.”

Take, for example, our approach to renewable and non-renewable resources. We evaluate the viability of coal, oil, gas, solar, nuclear, and wind power based on its relative cost per equivalent unit, its monetary price. The cheapest form of fuel is automatically to be preferred, for any other conclusion is inefficient and irrational. The effects on the environment, the degradation of our ecological systems, the violence committed to our land, air, water, and wildlife when we extract natural resources for human and technological consumption, are either not considered or are quantified as merely added costs. To the Buddhist, which values simplicity and non-violence, basing one’s economic life on non-renewable resources is justified only by short-term expedient thinking. “As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity,” Schumacher writes, “it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men.” Or as Ghandi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.

As Robert Kennedy articulated in a campaign speech (quoted at the beginning of this essay) that is unique to any I have heard from an American politician in my lifetime, while money forms our system of measurement for economic success, it cannot buy the things that matter, such non-material values as justice, harmony, inner peace and love. "[W]hen the available ‘spiritual space’ is not filled by some higher motivations," according to Schumacher, "then it will necessarily be filled by something lower – by the small, mean, calculating attitude to life which is rationalized in the economic calculus.” Although merely food for thought, Small Is Beautiful and the principles of Buddhist economics are helpful reminders that unquestioned assumptions upon which we base our way of life are often but weak alternatives to the less conventional wisdom of humankind.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Random Thoughts at the All-Star Break

The extended heat wave of early July has finally subsided in eastern Pennsylvania, at least for a brief moment, so I exhale a sigh of relief, comforted by the thought that for three days the baseball season begins a short hiatus to accommodate the annual All-Star game. Although the season is already several games into the second half, the All-Star Break is baseball’s unofficial halfway point. The Cardinals enter the break in second place in the National League’s Central Division, only one game behind the surprisingly strong Cincinnati Reds. The dreams of a glorious season that enraptured Cardinal Nation on Opening Day are tempered by the long grinding struggle that is, in reality, the 162-game baseball season. Cardinals’ fans remain cautiously optimistic, hoping for a second half surge that will end in ninth-inning walk-off celebrations, home plate mob scenes and ticket-tape parades. But nagging injuries – Ludwick’s calf, Freese’s ankle, Rasmus’s hamstring, Penny’s lateral quad muscle, and Lohse’s forearm, among others – transform our imagined glory into anxiety-ridden, inning-by-inning, nail biting misery. Such is the life of a baseball fan.

It is during these brief moments of sanity, in the quiet solitude of an off day, when I understand why those closest to me may mistakenly believe that my life during baseball season falls into an abyss of warped priorities. Waking up early each day, I catch the train into town and work in the office, often not returning until 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. Arriving home at the edge of dusk, I feed my daughter’s guinea pig, make dinner, and watch that night’s Cardinals’ game, which monopolizes my time until after eleven, sometimes approaching midnight. This of course adds severely to my cumulative sleep deprivations, which are particularly magnified when the Cardinals play on the West Coast. When I explain that “my team” needs me, that I am certain Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan rely on my telepathic instructions to Schumaker and Pujols to lay off breaking balls in the dirt; to Holliday and Rasmus to hit the cut-off man on throws from the outfield; and to Suppan and Hawksworth to keep the ball down, I am met with the cynicism of rolling eyes and shakes of the head. “Baseball is not necessarily an obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post has said. “You can be a truly dedicated, state-of-the-art fan or you can have a life. Take your pick.”

Adding to my “managerial” obligations are my many parental responsibilities – teaching Hannah to drive (which makes a hair curling, extra-inning drama seem like a relaxing weekend in Stone Harbor) and offering Dad-like advice to two skeptical, independent-minded teenage daughters neither of whom are much impressed with the demands of my unremunerated (and officially unacknowledged) internship with the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Club. In my remaining spare time, when not cutting the grass or running errands, I agonize over the final touches of “Ehlers on Everything” and respond to the right-wing rants of my critic-in-chief and ideological nemesis, the infamous “Rich R.”, who tenders unsavory disputations on every word, phrase, or grammatical deviation that hints of liberalism.

So as I ruminate at the All-Star Break, confronted with three nights and no Cardinals games, I have a moment to reflect. Here, then, in no particular order, are some random musings and thoughts on the state of the world as seen through the eyes of a sleep-deprived and unpaid writer, political philosopher, amateur theologian, and baseball manager:

On Politics:

· Has America always been a house divided? As splintered and rancorous as America at times appears to be, is it really any worse than the state of affairs during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when as a nation we were so intensely divided over the Vietnam War and civil rights that students were gunned down by the National Guard and our nation’s cities were the scenes of repeated rioting? It was a time when entire generations spoke past each other and our youth experimented to excess with newfound sexual freedom and drug use, when an anything-goes culture clashed with the staid conformity and repressed instincts of the fifties. By comparison, today’s blue state - red state divisions do not look that bad. Yes, we have Tea Party protests and disruptive town hall meetings, but there is an element of healthy debate in some of this. Compared to the early seventies, when the Weather Underground was blowing up public buildings and a segment of our youth was turning on and dropping out, there are some aspects of today’s political culture that, however screwed up, are an improvement upon forty years ago. A little less interesting, mind you, but distinctly healthier.

· Has anyone figured out what the Russian spy scandal was actually about? From what I can tell, the closest thing to a state secret revealed was the new menu offering from Wendy’s.

· Does Nicholas Kristof have a point? The liberal New York Times columnist has been on a pro-Palestinian kick lately; a thoughtful one, offered with his typical humanitarian flair, but in this instance I worry he has lost balance and, as is often the case with perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a sense of recent history. I agree that the Israelis mishandled the Turkish flotilla raid that led to nine deaths, and they were right to ease the blockade of goods being imported into the Gaza strip, but the bad guys remain the leaders and members of Hamas. Until its leaders speak and act differently – acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and stop lobbing unprovoked missiles into the suburbs of Tel Aviv – I cannot generate much sympathy for them. It is unfortunate that the more reliable defender these days of the only democracy and glimmer of hope in the Middle East is not the liberal establishment but, rather, conservatives and evangelical Christians.

· Where is the outrage? Oil continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico at alarming rates, killing fish and wildlife and upsetting ecosystems, disrupting the lives and destroying the livelihoods of tens of thousands of residents on the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. If the Deepwater Horizon disaster does not cause us to hesitate with further offshore drilling ventures, reconsider our energy policies, and recommit to green energy solutions, we are destined for a future of continued dependence on foreign oil, irreversible climate change, and economic troubles. As Gretel Ehrlich, writing for Sojourners, recently said: “We’ve forgotten that when we step down on the earth we are walking on a living membrane. Now we are wounded people recklessly pimping a wounded planet. We’ve turned away from a sacred view of the world, a deep openness in which we accept that all living things have value. We’ve drilled recklessly under the ocean floor for economic gain, and in the process exchanged a sense of well-being, beauty, hope, and wonder for the myopia of profit.”

· Is Rush Limbaugh serious, merely delusional, or a complete fraud? Limbaugh has repeatedly portrayed President Obama as an “angry black man” who is intentionally tanking the American economy in order to obtain “economic reparations” for minorities. Not only does this make no sense, it is so disingenuous that I find it impossible that the fat windbag actually believes most of the verbal trash he spews on the airwaves.

· Should we be worried? Chris Matthews warned last week that the Democrats should take Sarah Palin seriously, that she could actually make a credible run for the White House in 2012. Her unfavorable ratings still seem too high, in my opinion, for her to be a serious threat, and I do not believe she can withstand the intense media scrutiny that presidential elections impose. But Matthews knows a thing or two about American politics, so if he says she could win, it is a matter of concern for sane, rational Americans.

On Law:

· What’s in a lawsuit? The Department of Justice was correct to enjoin Arizona from enforcing its new immigration law. The doctrine of federal preemption renders the state law unconstitutional. This is a non-political, legally correct position that even the Bush administration would have had no choice but to assert as well. Federal immigration policy has national and foreign policy implications, it affects our relations with sovereign nations, international aid groups, and it requires substantial coordination of federal law enforcement resources. We cannot realistically have 50 different immigration policies scattered among the states, particularly when the federal government (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is required to implement the deportations and detentions that would result from laws like that in Arizona. That said, it is long past time for Congress and the President to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

On Life:

· Is the United States in the midst of a tattoo epidemic? Or is it only Philadelphia? The many and varied forms of displayed body art that I observe on my walks through center city remind me of building graffiti and subway art, except that the tattoos are less aesthetically pleasing.

· Why did I join the private sector? A recent survey of the federal workforce showed that 8 in 10 federal employees like the work that they do, and more than 90% think that what they do is important. This is how I felt for the nearly 20 years I worked in government, when I possessed a heightened sense of self-worth and the feeling that what I did mattered, that I was contributing, if only in a small way, to an effective criminal justice system and a functioning Constitution. Oh, yeah, the money.

On the Cult of Celebrity:

· Why should we care about the fate of Lindsay Lohan? Don’t misunderstand, I feel sorry for her in the way I feel sorry for any anorexic, drugged out, over-partied, spoiled brat with a bad father, but do we really need to devote that much air and print time to such a trivial story? Is she not just one more of the hundreds of examples, from Judy Garland to Gary Coleman, of child stars being consumed, exploited, chopped up and discarded by a narcissistic Hollywood culture of breast implants, glorified drug use, money and superficial glitz?

· Speaking of role models, is Cleveland really such a bad place to live? I am not sure whose idea it was for LeBron James to waste sixty minutes of national television time announcing that he has chosen “South Beach” (not Miami mind you) in which to spend the next several years of his NBA career, but he could have more easily and tactfully humiliated the fans of Cleveland with a press release.

I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. --Crash Davis in “Bull Durham”
As with changes to baseball’s grand traditions, social and political progress often advances gradually and in small increments. Just as with the elimination of artificial surfaces in most major league ballparks, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will eventually be repealed and John Edwards’ ego will eventually deflate. So, as you continue on your life’s journey, remember always the immortal words of former Yankees manager Bob Lemon, “The two most important things in life are good friends and a strong bullpen.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Notes on Patriotism and Celebrating America

If we pause for the passing moment, if we rest on our achievements, if we resist the pace of progress . . . those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future. --President John F. Kennedy

Each year on the Fourth of July, we join as a people to celebrate the birth of a nation, unified not by a common culture but by a set of founding principles, that all men are created equal, possessed of the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When I was in law school in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980’s, I made it a point to attend the free outdoor concerts on the Mall, courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra in celebration of national holidays. With fireworks lighting up the night sky, the sounds of America the Beautiful emanating from the reflecting pool, and the great memorials to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln glowing in the background, a mass of humanity gathered in front of the beautifully lighted U.S. Capitol building as American flags waved and patriotic spirit filled the air. It was easy, in such a setting, to feel overwhelming pride as an American citizen, lucky and blessed I am to live and work in a land endowed with such a rich and glorious history, one founded on the ideals of democracy, liberty and human rights.

I am proud of America for its many accomplishments; for its diversity of peoples, cultures and talent; its abundant natural resources and breathtaking landscapes; its immigrant heritage and vast opportunities. Most of all, I love what America stands for – freedom, equality, democracy, and the rule of law – concepts born during the Enlightenment and bred in a Revolution. Led by an exceptional group of wise statesmen and brave soldiers, intellectuals and leaders, men such as Adams and Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, Franklin and Washington guided us to independence and founded a new republic that remains a beacon of light and a symbol of hope to the world. America has remained faithful through the years to the ideals of governance and civic engagement embodied in the Constitution: the freedom of speech and of political and artistic expression; the freedom to vote and to peaceably assemble; the freedom to pray and worship (or not) without government direction or interference; the freedom to travel, study, work, and live where one chooses; and the freedom from arbitrary detention and unreasonable searches and seizures. To take such rights for granted is to ignore world history and fail to realize that these rights are not universally shared and were born of a courageous and violent revolution led by a brave and valiant people.

Although the United States remains a young nation in the annals of history, only 234 years into this grand experiment, we are old enough to have experienced growing pains from the tensions and contradictions between the ideals expressed in our founding documents and their implemented realities. Grand affirmations of equality and justice in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution notwithstanding, we are sobered by the reality that our forefathers formed a union less than perfect, one that disallowed the freedoms and privileges of citizenship to persons of color. The country at its birth sanctioned the historical injustice of slavery, an evil that would haunt the nation for eight more decades and lead to a prolonged and bloody civil war, followed by a century of further oppression in the forms of lynch mobs, Jim Crow laws, and government-enforced segregation.

To study American history is, in part, to chronicle the distance between the ideals of American democracy and the realities of American life. One cannot proclaim to love America, yet ignore its blemishes. A true patriot recognizes the glorious nature of America’s past, but strives constantly to achieve that which our founders hoped to achieve – “to form a more perfect Union” as stated in the preamble to the Constitution – and to narrow the distance between our ideals and our shortcomings. In 1852, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" Refusing on that day to celebrate the anniversary of America's founding, Douglass told an audience in Rochester, New York, "Above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them." By holding the immoral vice of bondage up to the light of American tradition and culture, Douglass demonstrated a genuine form of patriotism. He so cared for and loved his country that he refused to remain silent while America fell short of its ideals. Eleven years later, in part due to the persistence of Douglass and the abolitionist movement, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, thus ending America’s acquiescence in the institution of slavery.

Too many Americans equate patriotism with flag-waving and “Support Our Troops” ribbons, secure in the belief that those who fail to so express themselves are insufficiently supportive of American institutions and of our men and women in uniform. President Obama was criticized (and never forgiven by some) for not wearing a U.S. flag lapel-pin on one occasion during the presidential campaign, and then for daring to suggest that wearing the right pin, or tie, or bumper sticker is not necessary to reflect one’s love of country. Some on the right confuse patriotism with nationalism, requiring blind loyalty to American institutions and believing that America is innately better than all other nations, that we are a nation chosen by God to fulfill a destiny to which others fall short.

Symbols, flags, and banners have their place, and some on the left are too quick to dismiss their importance. Monuments and memorials, statues and parks, songs and posters offer inspiration to the nation as it seeks to fulfill its promise. It is right and proper to celebrate, care for, and display the symbols of our democracy – tributes to Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln; the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell; the carvings of Mount Rushmore; and the many memorials to our fallen soldiers. It is important to our sense of national unity and common purpose that Americans of all races and backgrounds, faiths and political leanings share in civic pride and celebrate our history. The revolutionary spirit that became the Miracle of Philadelphia is indeed worthy of fireworks displays and symphony orchestras. But while traditions have their place, and celebrations of national identity are good for the American spirit, we must temper our pride with humility and the recognition of past failings.

In August 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he was surrounded by the symbols of American democracy. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” King said, “they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King’s words were spoken nearly a century after we had fought a Civil War and ended slavery, nearly 180 years after we had founded a republic on the promise of freedom and justice for all. But despite this passage of time, our nation had fallen short of the ideals espoused in those “magnificent words”. King believed in the promise of America and the moral virtue of its foundation. It was time, therefore, “to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children [and] to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

America today is a better, more fair and just nation than the America that existed prior to King’s life and death. Shortly after King’s famous speech, the United States enacted landmark legislation that banned discrimination in all public accommodations (Civil Rights Act of 1964) and that made the right to vote a reality for millions of previously disenfranchised citizens (Voting Rights Act of 1965). By mobilizing a non-violent army of concerned citizens, who wished not to denigrate America but to make it better, King and his followers succeeded in convincing the country – and a majority of our elected representatives – that the moral promise of America had fallen short but that, through the moral force of equal justice under the law, American society could be transformed, the promise of its founding fulfilled.

Within a few years of the March on Washington, America was a deeply divided country, torn over the Vietnam War and the slow but advancing progress of civil rights. Political and social discontent, anti-war demonstrations, and criticism of American society’s treatment of blacks, women, and other minorities stirred resentment and cries of anti-Americanism. A growing nationalism took root in parts of the country. Bumper stickers and slogans expressed intolerance and an increasing impatience with political dissent: America: Right or Wrong and America: Love It or Leave It. Americans stopped listening; although we spoke the same language, we shouted past each other. Dissent became confused with anti-Americanism, nationalism with patriotism.

America at its best is a nation that welcomes immigrants to its shores, that opens its schools and universities to students of all colors, faiths, and cultures, that promotes and celebrates the diversity of its people and the genius of its civic governance. America at its best provides equal opportunities for all to succeed, free from discrimination and prejudice; cares for its land, air, and water; shows compassion for its less advantaged citizens; applies the rule of law without passion or prejudice to corporate CEO’s and sanitation workers alike; comes to the aid of friends and stands ready to defend liberty.

We should boldly celebrate and take pride in America at its best; we must constantly push and prod America when it falls short. A true patriot cares as much about correcting our shortcomings as honoring and celebrating our achievements. If we celebrate our past uncritically while ignoring our historic sins – slavery and segregation; our shameful treatment of Native Americans; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II – we risk descending from a nation of hope and promise to one of apathy and despair.

There are, of course, many ways to express one’s patriotism, and it matters not whether one is liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. Peter Beinart, in a thoughtful Time magazine essay in 2008, explained the essence and virtues of true patriotism:

When it comes to patriotism, conservatives and liberals need each other, because love of country requires both affirmation and criticism. It's a good thing that Americans fly the flag on July 4. In a country as diverse as ours, patriotic symbols are a powerful balm. And if people stopped flying the flag every time the government did something they didn't like, it would become an emblem not of national unity but of political division. On the other hand, waving a flag, like holding a Bible, is supposed to be a spur to action. When it becomes an end in itself, America needs people willing to follow in the footsteps of the prophets and remind us that complacent ritual can be the enemy of true devotion.

Patriotism should be proud but not blind, critical yet loving. And liberals and conservatives should agree that if patriotism entails no sacrifice, if it is all faith and no works, then something has gone wrong. The American who volunteers to fight in Iraq and the American who protests the war both express a truer patriotism than the American who treats it as a distant spectacle with no claim on his talents or conscience.
True patriotism encompasses love of country, but not blind loyalty; a willingness to die for one’s country if called to defend her, but not blanket acceptance of an unjust war. I do not frequently wave the flag or wear lapel pins, but I believe that America can someday achieve the greatness and near perfection its founders envisioned. Patriotism requires that we constantly strive to achieve “a more perfect Union”; and that, as was done to achieve the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we urge, push and prod America and its government to live up to the words espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of its founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”