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Real patriotism, real security

By Scott Russell Sanders
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the word "patriotism" has come in for heavy use in America. Politicians pose for the cameras against a backdrop of stars and stripes, while declaring that patriotism means adherence to their own favorite policies. Generals tell us that patriotism means beefing up the military budget. Advertisers urge us to show our patriotism by cruising the roads in our fat cars, riding airplanes to vacation spots, investing in the stock market, running up debt on our charge cards, all for the sake of the economy. Manufacturers exhort us to look for "Made in America" labels. Pundits and preachers identify patriotism with voting or pledging allegiance or going to church.

What is lost in all these uses of the word is the original meaning of "pater"-ism, which is love of one's fatherland. We might just as well speak of "mater"-ism, love of one's motherland. In either case, what1s essential is the gratitude and devotion that a child feels toward the source of its life. And the source, here, is understood to be the land–not the leaders of the tribe, not the warriors, not the buildings or traditions of the clan, but the abounding earth, with its creatures and cycles and seasons.

Imagine what our ancestors would think to hear us call ourselves patriotic for dropping bombs on foreign countries, while each year thousands of tons of topsoil wash from our fields down the Mississippi River. Imagine what they would think of our bragging about the American economy as a beacon to the world, while our forests die from acid rain, our rivers run foul and our cities choke from smog. Imagine what they would think of those who invoke national security to justify drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while refusing to support more efficient use of the oil we already burn. Where, in all of that, is the respect for Mother and Father America? How can we be patriots without loving and defending the land itself?

Like talk about patriotism, talk about security evokes military images, again, all the more so in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The sources of public security we hear about most often are the armed forces, police, CIA and FBI. The sources of private security we hear about are guns, alarms and bank accounts. In the name of security, politicians offer us trillion-dollar missile shields, the Pentagon and their legions of contractors sell us whiz-bang weapons, developers peddle homes protected by fences and guards, car companies push four-wheel drive and investment companies prod us to grab a piece of the rock.

But are money and military force the best guarantees of our security? The root meaning of the word "secure" is to be free of care or concern. Think of all that would be required to free us from care. True, we sometimes need warriors and sleuths to defend us against attacks. But we also need to know that our children can play outside without danger, that we can safely drink the water and breathe the air, that we can count on a supply of nutritious food. We need shelter that1s dry and warm. We need reliable neighbors. We need to trust that our jobs won1t disappear at the whim of global corporations. We need to know that we'll be looked after when we fall sick and when we grow old.

By these measures, tens of millions of Americans are insecure, and no additions to the Pentagon budget will free them from care. Real security begins not with weapons or balance sheets but with membership in a loving community in a vibrant landscape, a community able to meet its basic needs from local sources, respectful of the weak as well as the strong, devoted to the well-being of all its members and to the health of its home ground. When we embrace that vision and work to achieve it, we'll have reason to consider ourselves true patriots.

-- Scott Russell Sanders, distinguished professor of English at Indiana University, is a member of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. He is the author, most recently, of "Hunting for Hope" and "The Force of Spirit."