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.

Acting Well in an Absurd World

I write this essay on the morning of the Clinton-Trump debates.  As the possibility of a Trump presidency grows in strength, sounds of confusion and the stink of fear have begun to fill the air.  How could a man who lies like a psychopath, who bullies and mocks and finds common cause with White Supremacists be our president. It makes no sense.  We must be living in an altered state of consciousness.

We have been lied to before.  Think back to our entry into the Iraq war, the Iran contra affair, Watergate, and the torture chambers that we transferred to foreign soil, lest they infect our own.  We have had presidents who have torn down what we thought was almost sacred—the New Deal safety net—Reagan, Bush, and Clinton readily come to mind—and helped to build a world in which the 1% own 50% of our wealth and god knows what percentage of the decision-making power.

What I want to talk about today, though, is the impact of the presidential campaign on us, moderate, liberal, and Progressive Americans who wonder how this could be happening to them, feeling like bystanders to a process that is out of our control.

I have studied the European climate during the rise of fascism and Nazism.  It was fed by extreme poverty and loss of life during World War 1, which, in turn, fueled the rise of Nazism and the concomitant anti-Semitism that almost wiped out the entire Jewish people.  For me, just behind the actual death and destruction, the worst part was that so many people just stood by and let it happen.  I don’t mean the time-worn and erroneous way that later anti-Semites described Jews as passively accepting their fate like lambs to slaughter.  I mean the millions of people who did not believe in fascism or didn’t wholly  believe in it, who were offended, but who did nothing to resist.

Now I am afraid that we are standing by.  Almost 70% of Americans dislike Trump and much of what he stands for but—and this is the point—I don’t believe that we are taking the threat seriously enough.  If we don’t, it may not be the “basket of deplorables” who are most to blame, it will be us.  As Albert Einstein famously warned, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

In the face of our own fear and confusion, it is hard to know what to do.  Many in the middle and on the left seem dispirited, depressed, just short of giving in to despair.  Genuine hope seems an illusion.  Others are in a state of denial.  Hillary Clinton will surely win in the end, they say, however timidly.  We are Americans.  We will come to our senses.  We can’t be this lax, can we?  This is just how political contests go.  They tighten up at the end.  The forces of good will come through in the end.

Alternatively, we whisper that Trump may not turn out as badly as he seems.  He’s just saying all those terrible things to win the votes of the Republican base.  Look at the influence of beautiful Ivanka and her new childcare proposals.  Maybe these “denials” will prove out and Clinton will win or Trump will turn out to be better than he seems.  Maybe, but are we willing to take that chance?

I know that this article will seem alarmist to many, extreme to some.  But shouldn’t we raise the cry, just in case?  We do need to organize.  We do need to fight our own despair and impotence.  We need to fight our way out of this nightmare.  The question, then, is how do we do that.  I know that the Democratic Party will organize.  I get several fundraising emails every day.  The “ground” troops are hard at work.  The ads are ubiquitous.  But that hasn’t worked so far.  The harder the Clinton troops work, the more they seem to be losing.  Trump continues to gain; and he is now tied.  When you continue to try one strategy—characterize Trump as an immoral lunatic who can’t be entrusted with the keys to the kingdom—and that strategy does not work, you can’t keep repeating yourself.  You will lose.

We need to be heartier and more creative in the coming weeks.  We need to shake our confusion and despair.  Before we strengthen ourselves on the big stage, we have to raise our spirit, one person at a time.  Here are some thoughts about breaking loose.

When I start down that road to despair, I generally try to make sense of what’s going on.  I’ve been trying to do that for months and months now, and I can’t.  It makes no sense that Trump’s popularity grows.  I have written more than ten essays about the subject, trying to understand and not just condemn White working class voters, but I have failed to clarify things even to myself.  The political situation just seems absurd.

So I have begun to turn to the master absurdity, Albert Camus.  Camus, who wrote in the face of fascist and communist totalitarianism, simply began with the premise that the world is, in fact, absurd.  The absurdity that we face in the present day is not an aberration, it is our shared reality.  We cannot grasp it logically.  Theological explanations are not helpful: no amount of sin or the need for cleansing, for example, could explain the rise of Hitler.  Our moral compass just seems to spin.  As Camus would say, we live in a godless universe and Trump exemplifies that universe.  Sociology and psychology also bring us to a kind of dead end because explaining the horror doesn’t stop it.  What to do, then, in the face of this absurdity.

Camus’ philosophy is complex but here’s the simple version from his The Myth of Sisyphus that has sometimes kept me going.  Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again.  This sometimes characterizes the experience for those of us who have tried year after year to build upon progressive values.  We push the rock up the hill for a generation, then it comes tumbling down. Why, we ask, should we keep trying.

Camus tells us that Sisyphus is only freed from his despair when he recognizes the absurdity of his situation.  I suppose that goes for progressives like me, who might call ourselves realistic but who have in mind an idealized future just beneath the surface of our policy proposals.  What I feel when I fully acknowledge that the Trump surge may well win out, when I give up hope, even for a moment, is first terror that is soon, paradoxically, followed by relief.  I can stop trying to push the rock to the top.

By pushing and pushing, I had become robotic.  I had lost all creativity and, maybe even compassion for the people I want to help.  It was as though I had been closing my eyes and holding my breath, hoping that the nightmare would go away.  When I give up, when I stop pretending that the world is other than it is, and that includes a world with Donald Trump in it, I can breathe again.  With breath, there comes relief.  For a moment, I relax, as though the worst is past.   Relief is then followed by a sense of freedom.  There is no rock.  I can do as I please.  I can choose my future.

What do I choose?  I still choose to push the rock of progress up the hill.  But now, no gods are making me do so.  And maybe, free from the constant struggle, I can find more creative ways to get that rock up the hill.  A lever?  Jet propulsion?  I sustain my effort because there is nothing else that I can do that fits my values, that gives me a sense of meaning, that sustains my integrity. My struggle for social justice is selfish in this way.

Giving up the robotic struggle leads to freedom and freedom leads to possibilities for a better future because—and this I believe even if logic won’t verify it—the world demands that we strive towards freedom and decency, respect and equality for all.  It urges us forward like a mighty river.  It is the only path that is worthwhile. So we take it.

The perils of America’s missionary narrative

If the world is falling apart as so many people fear, how did this begin?  That’s the subject of Steven Kinzer’s excellent article this Sunday, August 7, 2016: “Don’t Blame the Masses if the World Isn’t Unified.”  He lays the blame primarily on our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse.  “It was a Soviet failure, but we interpreted it as an epochal American victory.”

According to Kinzer, this led to further misinterpretations and poor judgment.  We believed that we were the sole international super power and built a foreign policy based on this idea and the need to sustain it.  The belief then pitted us against China, Russia, Iran, and anyone else who defied us.  We believed that we could build a world economic order—“Globalization” and free market economies—that would give sustained structure and credence to our triumph.  And to preserve that world order, we attacked Iraq, taking down a cruel dictator and protecting our oil interests, putting an exclamation point on our new position astride the world.

One of the reasons that this narrative of American ascendance took hold was because it isn’t new, and from here on in, I will be extending and reshaping Kinzer’s argument.  From the time of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny in the early nineteenth century, the American narrative has marked us as special, the standard bearer of democratic and Christian values.  Our special place then entitled, and sometimes mandated, us to spread the word.  It undergirded, for example, our push across the American continent.  So powerful was this narrative, that it managed to hide or exclude conflicting evidence, such as the enslavement of millions of Africans, the destruction of Native American nations, and the undermining of many Latin American governments that did not align with our ideas—and our economic interests.

The narrative of American exceptionalism continued into the twentieth century, with the nationalistic Spanish American War and the colonization of other nations, among others, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  Even the most progressive of our politicians, Teddy Roosevelt, joined in with gusto.  The narrative then began to reach its current power with the experience of the World Wars, particularly the second war in which our American army and the American way defeated European fascism and the decadence that we always had seen in the “old world.”  We were the new world.  We interpreted our strength not just as strength but as proof that our values and culture were superior.  We no longer had to just trumpet our values.  We could insist on them.  What followed was economic and cultural dominance, symbolized by the spread of the English language and U.S. movies and music.

The one sticking point was the Soviet Union, whose armies also laid equal claim to defeating Hitler and, along with us, developed nuclear arms.  Ever since the Russian Revolution in 1917, we have been anxious that Communism could undermine what Alexis de Toqueville termed “the great American experiment.” This has led to repressive, sometimes violent reactions, like the “Great Red Scare” of 1919, and the McCarthy period of the 1950’s.  To combat the Soviet threat, we built the NATO pact, which created a European barrier to the American shores.

So it is no surprise that we reacted with joy to the American triumph in the Cold War and against the Communist threat, but, as Kinzer suggests, the American narrative of exceptionalism was so powerful that it led to a failure in logic.  Since we had been fighting Communism, we must have caused its demise. That is the conclusion that enshrined Ronald Regan as a national hero.

Let me lay out the logic of this theme.  By building and sustaining a democratic government, we are the anointed ones.  That is our origin story, our Garden of Eden.  It combines the religious rebellion of the Puritans and the democratic rebellion of the colonies.  That, then, gives us the right to establish our hegemony over other peoples.

Power then becomes addictive, an end in itself.  This has been the fate of virtually all empires. They all say that they expand for two reasons: to spread their culture and values and to defend the homeland.  Think of Rome and England.  Russia, too, for that matter, no matter how much we disagree with what they were selling.  For all empires, those outside the inner circle, are heathens, sometimes primitives.  The narrative paints them that way and builds the picture of lawless tribes trying to tear down the shining empire.  Thus the hordes attacked Rome, the Indian natives rose up against Britain, and, according to Donald Trump, among others, the Mexicans and Muslims threaten to bring down the great American civilization.

With the strength of the narrative of American exceptionalism married to the overweaning power of the United States armed forces and the need to tame the heathens, Bush’s assault on Saddam Hussein is understandable.  The attack on Iraq, according to Kinzer then led to a cascading series of events that have, in turn, led to the feeling that the world is falling apart.  The argument goes this way: the Iraq war led to war, starvation, desperation, and the growth of terrorism.  These events led to the migrations of millions of people and refugee crises.  The refugees, in turn, destabilized Europe and hinted at the dissolution of the European Union.

There seems to be no end to the vicious cycle created, as Kinzer says, by our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse and by what I think is better framed as the out-of-control narrative of American exceptionalism—not the misinterpretation of a single event.

We badly need a new narrative, one that does not emphasize one way of life over another, one nation over all others.  But the universalistic narratives of the modern world—those of the League of Nations, the United Nations or the European Union have not seemed up to the task. The American notion of the Melting Pot, implying that all Americans should eventually be transformed – in essence — into White, Anglo Saxon Protestants, has similarly fallen by the wayside. Thank God.  In all cases, tribalism (sometimes expressed as Identity politics) seems stronger.  This is what makes the current world so dangerous.

I have personally struggled with this question for my entire adult life.  I feel inspired when listening to songs that bring all of us together, songs like “We are the World” and “Ballad for Americans.”  I am a universalist at heart.  But I certainly don’t know how to make that happen while accounting sufficiently for the need for belonging and protection that the tribal impulse seems to fill.  We desperately need a widespread and deep dialogue on how to blend the two.  We need a new, more collaborative, communal narrative to absorb and reconfigure all of the discordant and messy facts of our lives together…one that also leaves out all forms of exceptionalism –  religious, nationalistic, racial, and cultural.