Am I Proud to be an American?

In late June, many weeks before Obama’s and the Democrats’ total capitulation to the lunatic Republican Party’s actions on the debt limit and budget (i.e., no taxes for the rich, just spending cuts that harm the middle and lower classes), I was driving my car when I saw a car in front of me with two bumper stickers.  My thinking about the stickers was very telling and leads me to wonder if I am proud to be an American.

The first sticker said “Proud to be an American.”  As stereotyping as it was, my immediate reaction was to think that the driver was a right-wing “Patriot,” the type of person who, contrary to the self-described title, thinks only of his or herself and how the country can be made to serve their specific classes of (usually) white males and reactionary females who think like the white males.  I am going to do some exaggerated, inordinate generalizations from here on out, but, in other words, I think of “Patriots” as people who care nothing about anyone other than people like themselves.  They care nothing about the United States itself and, thus, cannot even be true “patriots” whether or not that is even a good thing to be.  So, I had a deeply negative feeling about the driver of the car simply because he or she had a “Proud to be an American” bumper sticker.  In addition, I wondered if it even made any sense for someone to proclaim that she or he is proud to be an American.

But . . . then I read the second bumper sticker.  This one said: “Proud to be a Union Sheet Metal Worker.”  Seeing this, my impression of the driver changed completely.  I thought that this was something that a person could really feel proud about.  I now had a good feeling about the driver, even though I didn’t really know why.

After I got home,  I wondered about what definitions of “pride” the bumper stickers were meant to convey.  In dictionary.com, there are five meanings:

1. a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.
2. the state or feeling of being proud.
3. a becoming or dignified sense of what is due to oneself or one’s position or character; self-respect; self-esteem.
4. pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by or belonging to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself: civic pride.
5. something that causes a person or persons to be proud: His art collection was the pride of the family.

For the “Proud to be an American” sticker, my negative, stereotyping thoughts led me to generalize that a person espousing that sentiment has “a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority” and “a becoming or dignified sense of what is due to oneself or one’s position or character.”  In other words, it is all about the person’s feelings of superiority over others.  It has nothing to do with whether the person has actually accomplished anything.

In contrast, the “Proud to be a Union Sheet Metal Worker” sticker led me to believe that a person espousing that sentiment has “pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by or belonging to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself.”  In other words, that person takes pride in something actually accomplished.

Those generalized feelings can’t be right, can they?  A requirement for legitimate pride can’t really be that the source of the pride has to have been something actually accomplished, can it?  For instance, can a person have pride in one’s college?  I think the answer to that is clearly yes since there is personal accomplishment involved.  But what about rooting for the college’s sports teams or for some professional or national team?  Can a person have pride in those teams?  According to the definitions above, I guess that the part of number four about civic pride is the one that would apply, although it seems rather conclusory.  One can have civic pride, but why?  What is it about a team that “reflects credit upon oneself”?

I think the answer is that it is not pride that is involved when you live in a country or when you root for a team.  Rather, I think that it is simply “identity.”  In other words, a person can identify with a team or identify with a sports team.  By coincidence, just yesterday I read an article by Sherry Wolf in The Nation about sports teams and identity.  (The article is about how the sports world remains “fiercely hostile to open participation by LGBT athletes.”  It’s a very good read.)  This is what she said about sports teams and identity:

As American society evolved from agrarianism to industrialism, a huge influx of immigrants settled in growing cities.  Sports were consciously used to win them over to a fabricated national identity. . . . In an increasingly mechanized world where the ethos of competition came to dominate, the rules, teams and nationalism of sports became part of the new “American way.”

And, so, let’s leave “pride” for some actual accomplishment like pride in a daughter or son, pride in putting together an art collection, pride in playing the guitar, pride in a job, or pride in one’s beliefs.  Let’s not say that a person is proud to be an American or proud to be a fan of some sports team, just that she or he identifies with it.

How would this work for an American when traveling or living in a foreign country?  If someone asks where you are from, do you say “I’m from America and proud to be an American”?  I certainly hope not.  Isn’t it good enough to just say that you are from America and, if a discussion about the pros and cons ensues, talk about the things you like and the things you don’t like.

And how does this work for me?  I’m an American.  That’s good enough for me.  And there are currently a LOT of things I don’t like about America.

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Obama’s Reversal on Defending the Defense of Marriage Act

It looks to me that President Obama has decided that it is now “safer” to be a true advocate for same-sex marriage.  How else to explain his flip-flop of now telling the Department of Justice to not defend the Defense of Marriage Act when it was only one month ago when the Department had vowed to continue going to court to defend the Act.

The reasons given by Attorney General Eric Holder for the flip-flop are ludicrous.  Supposedly, according to Holder, he and President Obama have changed their minds because they determined after an extensive review that the law’s key section is unconstitutional.  The review was supposedly completed recently in response to two pending cases filed in November in Connecticut and New York.  Since the Department has been defending cases against the Defense of Marriage Act for two years, if one is to believe Holder’s stated reasons, the Department has failed miserably in its legal obligations for the past two years.  In fact, some opponents of same-sex marriage feel that the Department has been “deliberately throwing the case.”  If it intentionally has been “throwing the case,” the attorneys could be guilty of ethics violations.  Hopefully, that is not what has been going on; it is one thing for the Department of Justice to decline to defend an act, it is quite another to intentionally do less than its best.

Of course, Obama has still not committed all the way for support of same-sex marriage.  He is still said to be “grappling” with the issue.  How high do the polls showing support for same-sex marriage have to go before he will stop “grappling” with the issue?  Oh well, you can’t have everything.  Wouldn’t it be nice for Obama to finally take a true stand on this issue (and other issues) where he continues to equivocate?

The Army’s Wrong-Headed (and Discriminatory) “Spiritual Fitness Test”

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Army has something known as the “Spiritual Fitness Test.”  According to an NPR report, Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of something called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,” supposedly found data that “spiritual fitness has a positive impact on quality of life, on coping and on mental health.”  Since that “finding,” the army has had a required survey for soldiers to assess their “spiritual fitness.”  One question in the survey asks a soldier to rank herself or himself on the statement: I am a spiritual person. I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all of humanity. I often find comfort in my religion and spiritual beliefs.”  Another asks to rank herself or himself on “In difficult times, I pray or meditate.”

Obviously, atheists and other non-religious soldiers will get ”low” marks on the test.  In fact, most atheists might be expected to get 100% of the questions “wrong.”  A “low” mark on the test results in an assessment that:

Spiritual fitness may be an area of difficulty… You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and to others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles and values…Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal.

This is so wrong-headed that it’s beyond belief.  Cornum defends the “test” as “merely a helpful resource for soldiers,” saying that: “There’s no pass-fail, nothing happens. No one sees it but the guy who takes it.”  Another spokesman for the Army, Lt. Col. David Patterson, insists that the military respects the various beliefs of soldiers:  “Although spiritual fitness is offered to all soldiers, it is not meant by any means to influence, dissuade nor entice soldiers to believe in a deity, endorse religion, or in any way state that a soldier is unfit to serve if they lack spiritual fitness.”

Yeah, right.  Giving that kind of spin is nonsensical.  How can anyone possibly believe it?  “If an official survey tells you you’re deficient in some area, the implication is that you need to improve. Otherwise, why would the Army even ask?”  Moreover, Cornum’s supposed “finding” of data that “spiritual fitness has a positive impact on quality of life, on coping and on mental health”–and the implication that a soldier without “spiritual fitness” is harming those areas–is just plain wrong.  I can find just as many studies that find that being an atheist has absolutely no negative impact on one’s quality of life, coping, and mental health.  Cornum’s “findings” go back to the completely unfounded, self-serving religious canard that a person’s value system has to be based on the religion and whatever “Bible” that religion uses.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, as the many “new atheism” books in the past 5-10 years make absolutely clear.

I do agree that “coping” and “mental health” are areas for which the Army should try to help soldiers.  But coming at those areas from “spiritual fitness’ is not the way to do it.  In fact, in the same way that the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule can accurately be said to have harmed the “coping” and “mental health” of gay and lesbian soldiers, it is easy to see how things like the “spiritual fitness test” can harm atheist and non-religious soldiers.  What the Army needs to be doing is to make sure it is not condoning discrimination toward those soldiers and not finding new ways to extend the discrimination by things like the “spiritual fitness test.”

Thankfully, people in the Army are fighting back.  There is an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that represents non-religious soldiers.  Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who founded the group, says that the group has 220 soldiers ready to sue next week if the survey doesn’t drop the questions.

State Department Backslides on Passport Application Change that Benefits Gay Rights

Last week, I wrote about the State Department change to passport application forms that improved gender equality.  Instead of having boxes on the form for “Mother” and “Father,” the boxes would now say “Parent 1” and “Parent 2.”  Obviously, applicants with same-sex parents could not fill out the old form accurately.  They would be forced to enter inaccurate information or would have to cross out the words and substitute “Parents.”

Well, there are two problems.  First, even though the Washington Post article on which I based that post said that the change applied to “forms required for first-time passport applicants younger than16,” it appears that the changes would not have applied to all passport application forms, but only to a form called the “Consular Report of Birth Abroad” that U.S. embassies use to document the birth of a child to expatriate Americans.

And, now, the State Department has stepped back from even that change.  The form will have boxes on the forms for “Mother or Parent 1” and “Father or Parent 2.”  This is still a good change, but there was no need to backslide from the simpler “Parent 1” and “Parent 2.”  What makes the backsliding worse is that it is reported that it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who stepped back from the better change.  Supposedly, according to a State Department spokesperson, Clinton now says that she had not been aware that “Mother” and “Father” would be stricken when she signed off on a broader set of changes.  The spokesperson said that Clinton was “concerned that eliminating the ‘mother’ and ‘father’ from the forms would spark an unwanted fight with newly powerful Republican lawmakers who are calling for major cuts in foreign operations spending and have challenged administration policy in numerous areas.”

So, my first criticism is that Clinton backed down in the face of right-wing criticism.  It would not have been that difficult for her to stand her ground on the originally-reported change, especially given some previous advocacy by her for gay and lesbian rights.  And, second, when are the State Department and other government agencies going to make these kind of changes on other forms?  It’s really not a difficult change to make.

U.S. Passport Application Form Change — No More “Mother” and “Father”

In the latest welcome move toward gender equality, the U.S. State Department has dropped the words “mother” and “father” from its passport application forms.  Instead, applicants will need to fill out spaces labeled “Parent One” and “Parents Two.”  This obviously makes sense since it reflects the changing models of family structures and eliminates the need of parents who don’t fit the mother and father model to have to cross out the designations on the application.

Of course, the right ring groups are attacking the change in terms of same-sex marriage and “homosexual parenting”, but their attacks are sounding more and more like desperation.  For example, the increasingly irrelevant Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council wrote in a statement (to Fox News Radio, where else) that “This is clearly designed to advance the causes of same-sex ‘marriage’ and homosexual parenting without statutory authority, and violates the spirit if not the letter of the Defense of Marriage Act.”

When will these groups acknowledge the inevitable that movements toward gender equality will continue?  Just as importantly, when will news organizations realize that there is no need to seek comments from organizations like the Family Research Council?

Defense Secretary Gates’ Bogus Statements on Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

I’ve always suspected that Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement that he supported the elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was very possibly bogus.  His coupling of his supposed support for elimination of the policy didn’t quite jibe with his repeated emphasis on the supposed need for a full year of study by the Pentagon.  In my mind, the policy should have been eliminated immediately, but the military would have time to decide exactly how to implement any changes.  (There are really no changes necessary, but I’ll give Gates the benefit of the doubt that there are some details that might have to change.)

It never would have surprised me if Gates had come back after a year of review and said that there was still a need to keep DADT.  And it also never would have surprised me if President Obama went along with Gates.  Again, Obama could have easily stopped enforcement of DADT without Congressional action and without any need for a Pentagon review.  (Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said today that “[“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”] is a policy that is going to end,” but I remain suspicious of the true intent of the Obama administration.)

Now, there is more reason to think that Gates wants to keep DADT in place.  In the wake of the great rulings by U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips that, first, in September, found DADT unconstitutional, and, second, yesterday, that rejected an Obama administration request to delay an injunction and ordered enforcement of the 17-year-old policy permanently stopped, Gates said that “I feel strongly this is an action that needs to be taken by the Congress and that it is an action that requires careful preparation, and a lot of training.  It has enormous consequences for our troops.”  That doesn’t sound like someone who really wants DADT to be eliminated, does it?  Gates also said that, besides the changes in training, regulations will need revisions and changes may be necessary to benefits and Defense Department buildings.  I agree that computer systems will need to change to enable equal benefits, and I agree that there will be training necessary for the people who administer the benefits.  But changes to “Defense Department buildings?”  I can think of no possible reason that that will have to occur.  And, theoretically, the military does not discriminate against protected classes, does it?  Therefore, all that theoretically should be necessary to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians should be to say there will be no discrimination and to add that to the ongoing anti-discrimination training.

Let’s get on with the immediate elimination of DADT.  All President Obama has to do is to decide not to appeal Judge Phillips’ rulings and tell Secretary Gates to take immediate action to end the policy.

U.S. to Appeal Judge’s Decision that Held “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be Unconstitutional

U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips’ ruling on Thursday that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is unconstitutional was a great victory.   It held that the policy violated the constitutional rights of the military’s gays and lesbians and was detrimental to the military’s readiness.

You would think that the ruling would please President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates.  After all, Obama has said that he supports a repeal of the law.  And Gates, in February, ordered a review of the policy (reportedly to be completed in December) so that the military would know how best to make changes when the policy is repealed.  (I have been skeptical about the motives of Gates in ordering the review.  The repeal of enforcement could have been done almost immediately without an almost year-long study.  It still wouldn’t surprise me to see Gates order changes that provide far less than full equality.  But we’ll just have to wait to see what happens next.)

However, it seems probable that the Obama administrator will appeal Judge Phillips’ decision, including her decision to grant an injunction barring enforcement.  One of the main reasons for the appeal concerns money.  If the judge’s decision stands, it is likely that many service members who were discharged because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be in a much better position to sue the government for back pay and retirement benefits.

In my opinion, the government should not be fighting the ruling on those grounds.  The government discriminated against the service members and should have to pay the consequences.  In fact, wouldn’t it be nice if the government “voluntarily” paid the back pay and retirement benefits no matter what happens to the court case?  Former President Clinton’s compromise to get the bill passed was a terrible decision.  The government should not get off the hook for that decision.