Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.

America’s Fourth Revolution

As a child, I listened endlessly to Paul Robeson’s deep and sonorous tones as he sang the Ballad for Americans, celebrating the American dream of equality, justice, and opportunity.  The American promise came as close as anything to a spiritual ideal for me.  By the time I was in high school, I was enchanted with history classes.  In college, I majored in American history and literature, and I followed that with five years of graduate study.  I’d like to share some of what I learned.

We have had not one but three revolutions in American history in the march towards greater social, economic, and political justice. Each time, the purpose has been to redress a particular injustice and to move us further on the path of an inclusive democracy.   Each revolution has completed the unfulfilled promises of the one before.  These revolutions have been hard fought; they have required sacrifice.  But believing what we do as a people—government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—there has been no alternative, no possibility of little changes—band aids—here and there.  I believe that there is a need for a fourth revolution.

Our national history begins with the Revolution of 1776.  As Robeson sings:

In seventy-six the sky was red

Thunder rumbling over head

Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed

And on that stormy morn, Old Uncle Sam was born.

We were born in rebellion from monarchy and arbitrary power.  We created a democratic form of government in order to immensely broaden the base of power, and we instituted the rule of law.  By replacing powerful men with the rule of law, we guaranteed that no one could decide our fate without our consent.  The first American revolution represents one of the great achievements in world history, setting the standard for others and setting a standard that we would have to live up to, ourselves.

There were limitations, though.  Historians have long noted that the Revolution allowed the property-owning classes to establish their dominion.  The Constitution that they wrote did not include Black slaves, poor non-land owning whites, women, and a host of others.  To gain the allegiance of the Southern states, it created an Electoral College and assigned equal Senate votes to agrarian states with far smaller populations than states with urban centers..  These and many other Constitutional “deals” were set as a great wall against the rule of the “unwashed” majority.  The Revolution was a monumental  l event but there was work to be done to achieve a more robust democracy.

1860 brought the second revolution.  At its heart, it was fought to free the slaves.  Robeson intones:

Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,

His heart was high and his faith was strong.

But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,

And he went down to his grave to free the slave.

Many historians, believe that the Revolution of 1776 could only have  been completed with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Other historians noted that the party of Lincoln also broke the monopoly on power held by the original property-owning class and quickened the economic freedom represented by free-market capitalism that has defined our economy ever since.  In doing so, the Northern Republicans wanted also to put an end to the medieval dominance of the Southern aristocracy.

Again, these were great achievements that left much to be done.  The South quickly undermined the Fourteenth Amendment and, as if by slight of hand, transformed slavery into Jim Crow.  The laws of emancipation were on the books, but not the practice.  The agrarian states still held inordinate power at a time when European immigrants began to overflow the Eastern cities, and nativist politics did its best to keep them in their place.  What’s more, the increased vigor of “free” markets led to a form of monopoly capitalism, in which the few again found a way to rule the majority.  Robber barons  like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie and bankers like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were the new monarchs of American society.

The third revolution, catalyzed first by the Progressive moment, led by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and then by the Great Depression of 1928, culminated in FDR’s New Deal.  The masses had begun to rise against the free market “profiteers,” and to demand that government serve their end, to serve the needs of workers and small farmers, and of immigrants, of Catholics and Jews, not just White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants.  If America was to be of and by the people, it could also be for the people.  That meant more and better jobs, Social Security to protect aging citizens, rules that guaranteed working men and women an equal say at the bargaining table, among many other agencies and laws to even the playing field.

Like the first two revolutions, the third left much undone: Advancing he civil rights of Black people and women, not to mention those of gay and lesbian people, whose time would come sixty years later, and the right to health care for the old and the poor.  In many ways, the third revolution only realized its promise during the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson.  The period of the 1960’s and 1970’s could easily be considered a fourth revolution, with the sustained reform efforts of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the War on Poverty ushering in a hybrid form of government that combined social welfare with free market incentives.  For most of a century, the United States became the most prosperous nation the world had ever known.

Still, much needed and needs to be done.  There are many millions of Americans still in need of civil rights and economic access: people of color in particular but also poor and disenfranchised White people; everyone who is down and out or, like many home owners and college students, one step from foreclosure or dropping out.

What’s more, the freedoms wrought by the three revolutions are in jeopardy.  Once again, a plutocracy, consisting of enormously wealthy people and corporations, and the “public servants” who do their bidding, threatens the American dream.  Nativist ideologies threaten our efforts to be one people.  The US President-elect  insists on his own security guard (army?), more reminiscent of dictatorships than democratically elected government.  New cabinet members threaten to roll back civil rights to the days of Jim Crow, to dismantle economic regulations that give working people a fair share of power and health care systems that protect the vulnerable.

Let me be more direct:  The incoming regime threatens the most basic rights and hopes that have taken three revolutions to build:  liberty, democratic governance, inclusion of all, and a safety net for the vulnerable.  It should seem clear to anyone who has followed and loved the American dream that we need a fourth (but nonviolent) revolution.

We need to abandon the timid rhetoric of reform and the inadequate solutions of the liberals.  They may now be our Tories.  We need to build an agenda and a rhetoric that speaks to and unites all who are threatened by the “conservative” and the Trump regressions and repressions.  We need to abandon the rhetoric of small tribes: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, gay, lesbian, and “trans,” southern and northern, city and country.  We need an agenda that brings together the great, great majority of Americans to rebuild the American democracy.  We must fight the new property classes.  We must resist a Trump monarchy.  We must fight “bad King George” all over again.

I know that my rhetoric will sound naïve and idealistic to many, but so does any deeply held creed.  And I hope that I am more worked up than I need to be.  But I think not, and I do know that there is no revolution that succeeds without fighting hard and dreaming big.  Let me end by returning to The Ballad for Americans.  The chorus, America’s working people, asks: Who is this stranger and where is he going?  Robeson then responds for me and, I hope for many of you:

Our country’s strong, our country’s young,

And her greatest songs are still unsung.

From her plains and mountains we have sprung,

To keep the faith with those who went before. 

We nobodies who are anybody believe it.

We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.

Our song of hope is here again. 

Strong as the people who made it.

For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,

And now you know who I am.

Who are you?

America! America!

Newsflash: The 2032 Triumph of Obama’s People’s Crusade.

Newsflash: Sixteen years after he left office, former President Barak Obama has been awarded a second Nobel Peace Prize, this time for leading a People’s Crusade to stem the tide of climate destruction and authoritarian governments throughout the world.  As people begin to trust the victory, joyous, raucous celebrations have begun on the streets of New York, Paris, London, Moscow, and even Beijing.

Most people expected Obama to take a break after eight exhausting years as president.  He had fought valiantly, if a little too gently, against the irascible and relentless opposition of right wing legislators and a Supreme Court determined to undermine decades of movement towards the civil and economic rights of working people and people of color.  Instead, he began the People’s Crusade that has crowned his heroic struggle against tyranny and small-mindedness.

It would take books to describe how Mr. Obama turned the seemingly unstoppable and increasingly reactionary Trump—Putin-Le Pen locomotive.  But here is a very brief synopsis of how the little train, begun in 2017 grew into a powerful engine of social transformation.

Immediately after turning the White House over to Donald Trump, Obama moved to Akron, Ohio and began to organize—his first and greatest skill.  He organized what was left of the unions and the social justice organizations housed in nonprofits. He organized Black people, White people, Brown, Red, and Yellow people in common cause: the need for jobs, housing, rights, and hope. There was a vacancy and he ran for Mayor and won handily.  This was his new pulpit and he immediately turned things around by creating food, job, and child-care collectives, and housing starts. All of these created jobs.  Harking back to the New Deal and Keynesian economics, Obama insisted that sufficient taxes would eventually flow from good jobs. Within a couple of years, the Akron economy proved him right.

This became Barak Obama’s talking points in Ohio, where, in 2020, he won a Congressional seat, and around the country.  In his campaign, he dropped some of his celebrated civil tone.  He stopped trying to please everyone.  He grew more urgent and insistent, and he emphasized the need of poor, working class, and middle class people to unite against the 1% and their dominance.  It has been a long time—since the 1940’s really, that the anger of disenfranchised Americans has been educated and built into a powerful collective force.  The spirit of FDR spoke through him.  The betrayal of Democrats, the Republican, and the banks, who gathered power and fortune to themselves, became the core of Obama’s new narrative.

As he traveled the country, Obama brought small and medium-sized business owners into a growing coalition.  They, too, understand that more income for the lower and middle classes meant more income for them.  He brought in the universities, not in the spirit of the sixties, which left out and alienated the working classes, in common cause—and to help articulate the new agenda: higher wages, more jobs, health care for all, voters rights, affirmation of immigration, and a strong but conservative foreign policy, neither isolationist nor aggressively pushing the American agenda onto other nations, but resolute in defense of our shores and our strategic interests.   Within a year—say 2021—there was a great stirring in the country.  Everyone could feel it.  At last, a cause and a leader the great masses of Americans could unite behind.

By 2024, Obama and a burgeoning group of charismatic and diverse young leaders had won the House of Representatives, the Senate, and a majority of state legislatures.  Now they could get to work. Now they could reverse all the voting rights restrictions, the cripplingly low taxation, the nasty culture of us against them.  The People’s Crusade began to represent an overwhelming majority.  There was less and less need to demonize “them.”

It wasn’t just the brilliance of Obama and his allies that won the fight.  It was also the utterly self-destructive fury of the Republicans that brought them down.  There were the tax cuts that left the poor poorer, the sick sicker, the homeless and the drug addicted even more destitute.  It was the three wars, the two in the Middle East and one in South America, that bankrupted the country.  Each of the wars had been begun with an insult that President Trump could not ignore.  Angry words followed angry words—and led to retribution, with Trump believing that his bullying ways could translate to international relations.  And, like all wars since Vietnam, we couldn’t win those wars.

Aided by social unrest and European economic collapse, the American economy was on bring of a disaster comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  At the same time, China and Russia grew stronger.  Together, they organized Asian-centered trade deals that Americans, at first invited, refused to join. Even in decline, America under Trump believed in its general entitlement, and its special mission of world dominance.  America and the West grew more isolated, less able to dominate through economic power and more dependent on its bullying threats and its weaponry.  The brittleness of that stance was the most frightening of all.

Most Americans had never liked or even trusted Trump in the first place.  He had represented an opportunity to protest the growing disenfranchisement they felt.  But once the thrill of protest began to wane, Trump’s ruinous domestic and out-of-control foreign policies became evident to all.   An alternative awaited: impeachment.  Once the Republicans joined the uproar—he wasn’t helping their cause either—impeachment was easily accomplished.  Trump’s narcissistic and thuggish imitation of Putin’s enrichment of his own business empire provided an easy target.

In 2019, Mike Pence, the guy the Tea Party establishment wanted all along, became president.  He kept his ego out of foreign affairs, providing a show of strength and stability, but he continued to implemented the Tea Party’s nativist, misogynistic, and bellicose attack on fifty years of progressive political accomplishments with a quiet fury.   Never popular with the majority of Americans, Pence began to look slick and inept.   Once again, Paul Ryan tried to step into the breach with a disguised version of Pence-Trump policies, but within months of what the Tea Party saw as Ryan’s presumption and perfidy, he was assassinated by a White Supremacist.

During the early years of the Trump-Pence regimes, militias had grown bigger and bolder but they were almost as disenchanted with the Republicans as they had been with the Democrats.  Their grandiose dreams of power seemed close to realization. Secessionist sentiment in Texas, Alabama, and Idaho went mainstream.  America seemed on the edge of civil war and chaos.

Into this terrible cauldron of violence and lawlessness, came the Obama’s People’s Crusade.  Throughout the states, both Blue and White, growing fear and yearning led to the desire for a leader who would bring them back to the good old days.  Only now it wasn’t the ante-bellum South they sought.  It was the post war years, the late 1940’s and 1950’s when Americans seemed united in their optimistic pursuit of happiness and success, when individuals—though not, of course, African Americans—almost all felt they were on the rise, and that their interests were protected by a stable, powerful government.

Obama and a great swelling coalition of working people, people of color, immigrants, youth, women—and men seeking jobs and dignity—were ready.  They stood as the obvious choice to right the wrongs of the Tea Party, Donald Trump, the Koch bothers.  The Crusade had continued to give voice to this new and not so silent majority, and to win seat after seat in state and federal elections.  By 2028, the Crusade controlled both Houses of Congress and the Presidency—now held by Julia Perez, forty five, brilliant, and unafraid of taking charge.  The Supreme Court would soon follow.

That brings us back to 2032, the day of celebration.  Not only is this the day of Obama’s Peace Prize but, with a second term coming, Julia Perez now represents the consolidated reign of our first woman as president, and a Latina at that.