Patriotism takes many forms

No matter how cold the weather here turned late last week, Pittsburgh is still not the Arctic — even when you consider a particularly chilling news item that moved in from the north at about the same time.

The Associated Press reported last Monday that a few villages in Alaska are going without free heating oil because the company providing the fuel is controlled by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the man who infamously called President Bush “the devil” in a speech last month at the United Nations. Because of the insult, a nonprofit organization that would have managed the donation for four native villages turned it down.

“As a citizen of this country, you can have your own opinion of our president and our country. But I don’t want a foreigner coming in here and bashing us,” said Justine Gunderson, administrator for the tribal council in the Aleut village of Nelson Lagoon. “Even though we’re in economically dire straits, it was the right choice to make.”

At first glance, the situation seems absurd. Faced with the price of oil at $5 a gallon, the unemployment rate high, and the mercury at –15°F, it appears there is little for these villagers to gain by a statement of loyalty to a generally unpopular President except a season of frigid nights spent shivering under a pile of blankets.

We, however, see the Alaskans’ decision differently. We see a group of people standing up for their principles, no matter how unpopular those principles might be. Instead of a futile decree of solidarity to the Bush administration, we see a meaningful display of patriotism that is worth noting, understanding, and emulating.

In the current political climate, it is only too easy for anti-Bush partisans to equate being a “patriot” to being something akin to a neo-con lap dog. The President’s policies have had a remarkably polarizing effect on American voters, reflected on Capitol Hill by incessant criticism flying back and forth between the pro- and anti-Bush camps. It’s as well to remember, though, that supporting your country and being in the pocket of its administration are two different things. No one political party, way of thought, or group of people has a monopoly on standing up for what you believe in.

Indeed, both Republicans and Democrats have talked about the importance of reducing the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil. Well, here is a chance to do so. In Maine and Florida, there are already calls to break off deals with Citgo, Venezuela’s Texas-based oil subsidiary, and an editorial in the Anchorage Daily News said it was “embarrassing” that a state as oil-rich as Alaska should turn to a foreign nation for supplies. Here, also, is a chance to reap the political and environmental benefits of conservation — in Nelson Lagoon, one of the Alaskan villages that turned down Chavez’s offer, residents are running their furnaces only a few hours each day in order to save fuel until other shipments arrive.

If entire towns on the icy shores of the Bering Sea can give up free heat, surely those of us in comparatively warmer regions can make some sacrifices as well, be it turning down the thermostat a few degrees or riding a Port Authority bus instead of driving a car. There are more ways to be patriotic than waving flags and shouting slogans.