Progressive Patriotism?

Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark (or Wes as he now calls himself) has unveiled a ‘big idea’ that he is calling New American Patriotism.

It is nothing new, of course, for progressives to seek to utilise the spirit of patriotism for good causes but it does seem particularly appropriate for today’s America.

Anyone who has spent, like me, the past year reading the opinions of young and not-so young Americans on the internet cannot fail to have noticed the patriotism, which sadly so often expresses itself in reactionary finger pointing at the rest of the world and the perceived ‘enemies within’. I don’t buy all the alarmist stuff about America being on the road to an intolerent dictatorship but there are some disturbing tendencies.

Politically I suspect Clark is on to a winner here. It is not just a case of re-defining patriotism so as to make attacks from the right less effective but it can be itself a positive agenda which takes on Bush on his weak points – the tax cut for the rich in a time of war is clearly one policy that Clark has targetted.

One idea I particularly like from Clark is his proposal for a Civilian Reserve.

It involves a pool of people who can be called on to help in case of a domestic catastrophe, such as forest fires, earthquakes etc but has a much wider brief:

Nation building.

Today America is paying billions of dollars to certain American companies for reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. But numerous Americans have the language skills in Pashto and Arabic, the technical skills, and the desire to help. The Civilian Reserve can marshal and coordinate their efforts.

Working side-by-side with governments, non-profits, and non-governmental organizations.

The Civilian Reserve will work together with first responders and existing non-profit and non-governmental organizations, like the Red Cross, supplementing but not supplanting existing response systems.

Providing compensation, health benefits and job protection. In the event that members of the Civilian Reserve are mobilized to actively serve their country, they will be paid a stipend, receive health benefits and be guaranteed re-employment at their regular jobs, just like members of the military reserves. In addition, they will receive invaluable training and experience to use throughout their careers.

There is already an American tradition of such overseas volunteer activity through the Peace Corps but this seems more radical.

Could this not be something worth looking at in the UK?

Tony Blair frequently recites his belief in ‘active citizenship’ which brings responsibilities as well as rights and while the mantra may be mocked I’ve yet to hear anyone argue against the outlook. The problem is there hasn’t been a major initiative to increase active citizenship and allow people to take on their responsibilities.

I remember during the Iraq war that British Spin once said something about how an ‘International Brigade’ of civilian volunteers in post-war Iraq would be an idea worth considering and would help build a lot more trust than leaving everything to the US marines.

The same could be said for lots of crisis spots (including at home) where some expert help from civilians would be extremely useful. Of course we already have the charity Voluntary Service Overseas but there are limited numbers of people who are able to leave their jobs for six months without any guarantee that they will have work when they return.

Clark’s proposal is that volunteers get their job back and for any similar initiative in the UK to work it would also need to allow people to effectively take a sabbatical.

I fear that if the government were to propose a ‘Volunteers Brigade’, it would be mocked as a ‘do-gooders army’ by the cynics. But if Blair could be convinced that this would be ‘re-defining patriotism’ he might be tempted by the idea.

Just don’t tell him or Wes Clark that this is what the Young Pioneers used to do.