After the end of the War of 1812, former captain of the USS Constitution Stephen Decatur gave this toast at a dinner in Norfolk, Virginia: “Our country — In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong.”
The same reference gives this rebuke from G.K. Chesterson: “‘My country, right or wrong’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying, except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober’.”
What happens when one’s strong sense of patriotism dies, or when a nation’s definition of patriotism is changed to something it never had been before? It’s heartbreaking. During my Navy career, even in the bad times I always knew that I was a part of something much larger than myself, that for all the wrong that I saw, as a whole, we were striving to do what was right, not just for America, but for the world. And in almost every port I visited, the people were happy to see us, not just for our money, but because we were Americans, and so we could (for the most part) be trusted.
But no more. America has at least to some extent begun to embrace George Orwell’s definition of “doublethink”: “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”, as exemplified by “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” The proof? Ever-greater defense budgets and endless drone strikes and military adventurism is “peace”. The freedom to be equal in all respects whether straight or LGBTQ, whether white or nonwhite, whether “Christian” or Muslim…such is now “slavery” for the Right would have us believe that it takes away one’s “right” to discriminate. They have even compared “Obamacare” to slavery and the Holocaust…and they’re now in charge of our government. To complete the trifecta, most Republicans now believe that colleges and universities “negatively impact the state of the union.” Better ignorance than higher education, apparently. For decades the Right has decried the very notion of “good government”, that believing that the very idea is an oxymoron, and that the government should be “small enough to drown in a bathtub”.
Our nation has lost its way for an all-too-historically-common reason that does not bear repeating here. The more important question is, what do we do now? At what point do we stop fighting the good fight against reactionary fascism and white nationalism and choose instead to do what one must to preserve the futures of one’s own family? That’s a question that deeply bothers this retired Navy man. I served this nation and believed in the defense of small-d democratic freedoms for all my life…but now I’m watching the highest levels of our government repeatedly insult and offend those who have been our allies for generations, and instead willingly do the bidding of the leader of the only nation that can destroy us, against which nation we ended the most dangerous time in all human history - the Cold War - not so long ago, and which nation has even this year apparently used a chemical weapon on the soil of our closest ally (after which our president congratulated Putin on his reelection). Worst of all, there are tens of millions of my fellow Americans who still support Trump and enthusiastically hang on his every word.
This is not my America. Not anymore. I cannot allow myself to make the mistake of so many well-meaning patriots of past dictatorships and support my nation no matter how insane its leaders have become. What’s more, how can I encourage my family (and especially my sons) to be patriotic if our nation is no longer worthy of our patriotism? It is as if I’m being forced to make a choice between what is right for my country and what is right for my family…but if my country has become something other than what it was before, then the choice becomes much easier.
While America is (in my opinion) irrevocably in decline (as has always been the one eventuality binding all great empires of history), her decline may yet take decades or even generations before we find our international status as no higher, and our international influence no greater, than that of most of the nations of western Europe…and that is perhaps the best-case scenario. An equally-likely scenario is a descent into a nation defined by a Social Darwinism that combines the worst traits of Britain’s Industrial Revolution and our own Gilded Age.
It is good and right to believe in, and better yet, to belong to something greater than oneself. But when that “something greater” is no longer worthy of one’s sacrifice, then one must take a hard look at one’s goals in life, and particularly one’s responsibilities to family. I remember eagerly driving my youngest son to the recruiting office, but they rejected him for having been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder quite a few years previously. Now I see that rejection as a blessing in disguise, for if America continues to go down the path of white nationalism and Mussolini-style fascism, then she will not be worthy of the sacrifice of what Winston Churchill referred to as the blood, toil, tears, and sweat (much less the lives) of anyone in my family. If America does not correct her course by the general election in 2020, I will encourage my family to emigrate to a nation of which we can be proud. To be sure, all nations have feet of clay and warts of their own…but there are still many that in their own way believe in government of the people, for the people, and by the people.