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.

Transformative Moments: the Puritans Had it Right

There’s a question I have been wrestling with for at least fifty years: what makes change, particularly deep and transforming change, possible.  I don’t mean learning to be more polite, for example, but learning to express heartfelt gratitude to another.  I mean learning that shifts the underpinnings, the foundations, not the surface.

You can only prepare yourself for this kind of change.  You can’t force it.  Let me tell you a story about the early Puritans that illustrates my meaning.  The Puritans came to this country in the seventeenth century in pursuit of religious freedom.  They believed that the fate of their souls was predestined—in God’s hands alone.  Nothing they could do would influence the decision.  This created tremendous tension in these industrious people, who badly wanted to achieve God’s grace through good works.  In fact, some rebelled and created what they called a Doctrine of Works, which claimed that enough charitable actions would lead you to heaven’s door.  The Doctrine of Works provided solace for some but not for the strictest among them.

That little band believed they could, at best, prepare for grace by living simple, humble, and charitable lives.  Then they could only hope and wait.  And here’s the most interesting part of their approach to grace: It only came with heartbreak—the loss of a loved one or a home being burned to the ground, undoing years of backbreaking toil.  It’s as though the shell they constructed to protect themselves from life’s harsh injuries had to be cracked in order for God to enter.  If you substitute love or strength or understanding—more modern pursuits—for God, then you’ll see what I find so compelling in the Puritans’ pursuit.  Crisis tends to precede change and make it possible.

The lifetime of preparation, the striving for simplicity and humility, might take years to perfect, and even then there would be no guarantee of grace, but, once it came, it was sudden and complete.  You were transformed, and everywhere you looked, things were brighter, clearer, more connected.  The timing and content of change were unpredictable but durable.  The element of crisis was key to the journey.

Since I began publishing the essays in my blog, I have received a good deal of kidding and concern from friends about the dark side that I’ve revealed.  I appreciate their concern but I want them also to pay attention to something I am striving for: a kind of clarity and light that only comes with the acknowledgement, even the re-experience, of heartbreak.  Like the Puritans, I believe that it is necessary to move through times of confusion and instability to change the underpinnings of my mind.

The Puritans and I are not alone.  Virtually all contemporary change theorists sing a similar tune.  Here I think of Ilya Prigogine in physics, Steven Jay Gould in evolutionary biology, Eleanor Duckworth in education, and many more.  Let me escort you on a little journey through their world.

Prigogine says that systems in disequilibrium are vulnerable to change, often precipitated by random events.  When it comes, change can be sudden, massive, and complete.  The heartbreak of the Puritan is a kind of disequilibrium.  Most of us know these moments, when we are confused, off balance and uncertain, when the way we have solved problems and coped with pain in the past no longer work.  We reach and grasp for the ways that once worked but they seem to have abandoned us.  When we cannot recover our balance or our clarity, when we will ourselves to see the crisis out, eyes open, then deep learning is possible.

We find ways to see our world that had been invisible before, and new vision leads to new action.  Where once it had been unthinkable to confront an abusive boss, you “know” that you can do it—and you do it.  Where once you felt chained to a job or a relationship, you see the way out—or the way in, towards renewal. Where once you could not see beyond the death of your husband or wife, you might see the possibility of new friendships and professional pursuits.  You see these alternatives not because you are straining to do so; they are simply present.  These are transformational moments.

Steven Jay Gould developed a similar notion, which he called punctuated equilibrium.  He argued that it is only when species wander far from their normal environment that they are likely to mutate, creating new species. This, he tells us, is the engine of evolution.  So it is with our intellectual and social lives.  When we are placed—or place ourselves—in unaccustomed, often uncomfortable environments, we adapt.  We adapt in order to survive.  In this process of adaptation, we act and understand the world differently.

Eleanor Duckworth, a pioneering educator, famously said, “To be confused is good. Glorify confusion!”  She encouraged learners to experience cognitive conflicts, even painful ones, which, she believed, led to their minds becoming more deeply engaged with problems they were trying to solve.  She was less interested in students finding the right answers than in trusting the process of exploration, then testing conclusions—new ways of seeing—in light of how well they held up in experience.

In 1995, in my attempt to help individuals, couples, and families change, I developed a theory of my own.  It seemed to me that people change when they are ready to change. Trying to change people who are not ready was like trying to push a Suma wrestler off his spot when he knows you’re coming.  But when people are ready, when they are confused, off balance, and frightened, they could be changed with a little push from behind.  The push represented a kind of emotional judo, in which the therapist makes use of the patients’ own momentum.  Instead of forcing the matter, I would often wait for a moment of readiness, then provide a very safe environment, and encourage people to come up with innovations of their own.  It worked, and I often wished that I had someone to help me in that way.

This year, I turned seventy-four, I retired from my professional life and left a very nurturing work community.  For a year or so, when people asked what I was going to do with retirement, I said that I didn’t know.  The passage was cloudy, and I couldn’t see to the other side.  I was willing to not know because I did know that uncertainty had often had such a powerful and positive impact on my life.  The results have been extraordinary.

For the last six months, my mind has been more fertile than ever, my ability to write has been unblocked, my wish to tear down barriers between myself and others has surprised me.  When I look at issues that interest me, I see them as though from the height of the highest tree.  Ask me about any given political challenge and I remember things that people have tried sixty, fifty, thirty, and ten years ago.  History feels present, a familiar landscape.  The same is true for literature and music.  I feel like I am living in an expanded world, whose full availability feels new to me.

I also feel free.  I seem to have frequent access to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, being in the zone, being utterly absorbed in and energized by writing.   I wonder sometimes whether—or when—this will wear off.  I have no wish to flee, no wish to get back to “normal,” no wish to relax into golf, movies, vacations, and bon bons in bed..  And I’m going to milk this for as long as I can.  Then, when the next crisis comes, as it will,  I can only hope, that I’ll have the courage to work through another time of confusion and difficulty in order to celebrate  what’s on the other side.