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Originally published Thursday, March 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Authors plunge into meaning of "True Patriot"

Eric Liu, a co-author of "The True Patriot" talks about patriotism, values and politics before the authors' Seattle speaking engagement.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Author appearance

Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer

"The True Patriot" authors will appear at 7:30 tonight, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Avenue, Seattle, $5 at the door; www.townhallseattle.org

While the presidential candidates, Congress and the Bush administration continue to bicker over which of them is doing or will do the most damage to the country, two Seattle authors are trying to hose the mud off one of our core values. In "The True Patriot" (Sasquatch Books, $10.95), Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer look for the essence of patriotism beneath the rhetoric and partisanship.

Q: Why write a book about patriotism when there are already so many country-music songs?

A: (Laughs.) Think of this as the rap version. The idea here was to really get people to hear the old lyrics in a different way. Patriotism is one of those ideas that's become so cliché in American life, and our aim here was just to scrape away all the layers of cynicism and cliché that have surrounded it and ask ourselves, "What does it actually mean to be a true patriot, and what do we owe each other if we're going to live lives that are patriotic?"

Q: I always thought patriotism was like sexual endowment. The people who need to go on about it are to be dismissed immediately. Check out the size of my patriotism.

A: I'm not going to touch that [question] with a 10-foot pole.

Woman at nearby table: I liked it.

Q: I see you're not wearing a flag lapel pin.

A: I'm not.

Q: Ha! You and Obama.

A: I'm busted, totally. One of the things that we're saying in this book is patriotism is not about flag-waving, whether you're wearing the right lapel pin, whether you are wearing the right colors or anything. Patriotism is in your deeds. It's in your values. And it's in whether you believe in basic moral principles like stewardship, mutual obligation, sharing of sacrifice, and stuff like that is just not what the way that patriotism's been corrupted over the last generation ends up being about.

Q: What are some essential traits of what you call the True Patriot? Let's start with never criticizing the administration.

A: (Laughs.) I think you're reading the unauthorized version of the book. One of the things we say in the book is that criticizing the government, dissent, protest are absolutely a part of patriotism, but they're not all there is to patriotism. I think progressives have to learn that we have to be able to affirmatively describe why we love this country and what's great about it, not only point out all that's wrong with it. And conservatives for their part have to learn not only not to just to have kind of blind, knee-jerk defense of the nation but also be willing and able to point out what needs to be set right.

Q: You don't toe the line with the Democratic Party, and even think the Republicans get some things right. You seem to have a problem with partisanship.

A: What we have a problem with is partisanship and just blind ideology.

Q: You were a speechwriter and domestic policy adviser for Bill Clinton. Why should anyone from the other side believe a word that comes out of your liberal mouth?

A: (Laughs.) Because first thing we do, we say right up front of this book, we're progressive Democrats. We're not hiding that fact. But we're as frustrated with our own side as we are with the other, and we think the way people talk about what patriotism means has gotten completely off-track.

Q: How about constantly pointing out that we're better than all the other lousy foreign countries? You didn't mention that.

A: (Laughs.) You know, here's the thing: We are unique. We are exceptional. "Better" depends on how we live up to our ideals. But the fact that we have ideals, the fact that we hold ourselves up against some ideals, does set us apart.

Q: Patriotism vs. Jingoism: Which has the better T-shirts?

A: (Laughs.) Jingoism has the better T-shirts, the better country-music songs, the better soundtrack. Patriotism just ends up showing up in how people live their lives day-to-day.

Q: For those who think jingoism is that game played with wooden sticks, tell me why that's bad.

A: What's happened over the last generation is that the far-right has hijacked patriotism to mean simple jingoism — chest-thumping, militarism, our way or the highway. But what's also happened over the course of the last generation is that the left has gotten all allergic to patriotism and saying, "Gosh, we don't even want to use that word." We have some ambivalence about this, because to even express patriotism somehow seems to be embracing the Republican agenda. And both those attitudes are just completely wrong.

Q: What research did you do so that this isn't just a pamphlet of empty assertions?

A: We say in this book there's not a single new idea in the book. We read deeply in American history. We geeked out reading "The Federalist Papers," "The Anti-Federalist Papers," the Constitutional Convention debates; we talked to historians, we talked to preachers, we talked to political leaders right now, we talked to pollsters, we talked to everyday folks; we drew on what we both have known in our work and lives in public policy and tried our best to distill down from all of that the pure essence of a great tradition.

Q: You write that it's time to distinguish between true and false American patriots. Let me run a few names by you: Sean Penn.

A: True. Because he's willing to dissent, but he's also willing to paint a picture of what it takes to set things right.

Q: Sean Hannity.

A: False. Because he loves to wave the flag as a weapon but can brook no dissent, and loves to play games of raw partisanship rather than actually try to solve problems.

Q: The Patriot Act.

A: False. Because it takes literally in vain the name of the idea that undergirds our values and our commitment to each other for a law that actually erodes some of our core liberties.

Q: So you have no appreciation for irony, sir? OK, Wal-Mart.

A: False.

Q: They're all about America.

A: They're all about lowest cost, lowest price above all, and we think that there is something greater to American life than just chasing the best price you can and the best deal you can. It's about building community, and it's about thinking about what we owe one another, and the quality of our lives and not just the lowness of our prices.

Q: What are some patriotic things we can do? Our president told us to go shopping, and by definition, anything he says is patriotic, right?

A: (Laughs.) He says it, it must be so. How about serving on the PTA? How about helping to pass a library- or a school-bond measure? How about becoming a mentor? How about showing up and reading to kids at the library? How about actually thinking about what it is that your taxes make possible instead of just complaining about your taxes? How about reflecting on the fact that what we've inherited in this country is a legacy, and it doesn't happen automatically that America is a healthy and strong democracy? It only happens because we are conscious of the choices we're making.

(Liu pulls an iPhone out of his pocket and checks it.)

Q: That's a little bit of consumerism right there. You've got an iPhone!

A: I do. I love it.

Q: So you'll agree with me that materialism is the American way.

A: Hypocrisy knows no national boundaries, OK?

Q: You want to revive the draft. Because Mitt Romney's kids campaigning for him wasn't enough service to the country?

A: We are for an idea of national service. And that people all across the board ought to serve in some way, whether it's community service, whether it's military service, but in this day and age we need to have some kind of common, shared experience that binds a generation together.

Q: If sacrifice is patriotic, what are you sacrificing?

A: (Pause).

Q: Aha!

A: You know, it's an interesting thing. I sacrifice time. I sacrifice money. I sacrifice to spend time on civic projects, causes, efforts that are trying to strengthen and build community. But in a way, I actually don't think of that so much as sacrifice. I just think of it as responsibility. I have an opportunity to do stuff like that and I care about it, and I feel a little bit responsible for doing my part.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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