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Opinion Column
For the week of June 21 through June 27, 2000

Bumper sticker redux: America: love it or leave it

If Americans cannot and will not dissent, criticize, debate openly, demonstrate and obstruct, then what is America? The land of the paycheck and the bureaucrat? Certainly not the land of the free.

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH
Express Staff Writer

There it was again, after all these years, the bumper sticker expressing the sentiment that an entire generation of Americans associate with the Vietnam War…"America: love it or leave it."

The tattered sticker was pasted on the rear of a moderately battered, ill-kept American made pickup truck complete with gun rack and tool box and sullen looking driver with an attitude. I had not seen that particular bumper sticker nor heard those exact words of dissent against nonconformity in a long time.

The pickup was built many years after the Vietnam War was finished. The driver could not have been 10 years old when that war ended. He passed me early one morning on one of the West’s two-lane highways, though I was traveling the speed limit and then some. Then, he slowed down as if to make sure that I appreciated his bumper sticker message.

Another sticker on his rear bumper showed support for the NRA. Perhaps he had seen and was reacting to the one bumper sticker on my Japanese brand square back automobile, the only message I’ve ever put on a car: "Save Tibet."

Or maybe the surly looking pick-up driver was just a tired NRA-supporting patriot minding his own business and on the way to an honest day’s labor, without a glance at my bumper sticker or a conscious thought about his own. After slowing, he sped away.

I have often wondered what, exactly, does it mean to say to a fellow American, "America, love it or leave it."

During the Vietnam War the expression was used by political hawks and other supporters of the war to suggest to political doves and others who opposed America’s practices and policies in Vietnam that they should go live in Canada, Albania, China or Madagascar, or, perhaps, on the moon or even in Tibet.

What it might mean in today’s America and to whom it is directed is less well defined, more vague and visceral than thoughtful, less explicit and more general than in the days of the Vietnam War, a sort of psychic homemade scatter bomb intended for anyone of a different mind and whoever else happens to be in the way.

What is meant by "America?" By "love?" By "leave?" By "it?"

Is America a geography, an idea, a government, a political system, a collection of peoples, a set of laws or all of the above? If one were foolish enough to believe the meanspirited, violence inspiring fusillades of blather coming out of Charlton Heston and the other big guns of the NRA, the values of America and the NRA are synonymous. I do not believe they are.

While it is true that the kind of power that comes from the barrel of a gun is the power that built America on the backs of kidnapped slaves and on the stolen lands of Native Americans, the values of that kind of power are the values of the thug, the thief and the slave-trader. While those values are not taught in American history and are not the values of the majority of Americans, they are part of America’s heritage.

Fortunately, and naturally, America’s values have evolved, as have most—but certainly not all—of its citizens. America is, truly, the land of the free, and the price of that freedom includes not only the possibility but the responsibility of dissent, criticism, open debate, demonstration and, on occasion, a bit of nonviolent (though sometimes revolutionary and even unlawful) obstructionism.

If Americans cannot and will not dissent, criticize, debate openly, demonstrate and obstruct, then what is America? The land of the paycheck and the bureaucrat? Certainly not the land of the free. He who would trade freedom for security neither deserves nor will long have either.

Is the act of love the unquestioning, uncritical, mindless acceptance of that which is loved? I think not. To accept the unacceptable and to call it love is the beginning of violence and the end of any thought more sophisticated and insightful than the mindless chanting of slogans. It is to do prostrations before authority, genuflections to efficiency and to sell out the soul of the individual and the citizenry for the comforts of convenience and the softness of an illusory safety that life itself cannot offer.

To love one’s country (in this case America) is to participate in, and to attempt to understand, its multifariousness. It is not and can never be to encourage its many and diverse peoples to leave it.

For withdrawing from America, just like asking someone else to leave it, is the antithesis of loving it.

That is not where it is at, is it?

A better bumper sticker would read: "America: love it, don’t leave it."

Or: "America: love it, it needs you."


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