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.

Domesticating Radicals

In response to Mohammad Ali’s death last week, there was an outpouring of grief and adulation for the great man.  Not only was Ali a great athlete, but he great philanthropist and humanitarian.  He was a champion of civil rights and free speech.  At great cost to his career and reputation, he stood firmly on principle in his opposition to an unjust war.  He was known for his smile and his friendships with even the hard-to-love Howard Cossell.

In today’s Sunday Globe, Steven Kinzer, a terrific foreign policy analyst, objected to this one-sided portrait of the great Mohammad Ali: “Don’t mythologize Ali’s rage.”  Kinzer notes how the commemorations have taken the edge off, turning Ali into a kind, grandfatherly, and patriotic soul.  In fact, he was a fierce advocate of social transformation.  He was angry at US racism and the US war against Vietnam, which he objected to on general moral and race-based grounds: killing people of color and drafting disproportionate numbers of African Americans to do so.  I remember that well.

Kinzer then argues that the softening of Ali’s image is nothing new.  Our culture, powerfully abetted by our media, declaws all kinds of radicals.  Think of Father Daniel Berrigan and John Brown. “Activists of earlier generations have suffered the same fate.  Radicals from Thoreau to Paul Robeson to Malcolm X now appear on US postage stamps.  Mark Twain is remembered as a folksy humorist partly because his vivid denunciations of American intervention are absent from most anthologies.”

During their own time, these men—in fact, almost anyone who wanted to change our society—were  generally reviled, termed irresponsible, unpatriotic, revolutionary, un-American.  And there were reasons to revile them.  These were passionate people with passionate points of view, many of which were offensive to a great variety of people, even to those who appreciated the advocacy which made them famous.  In this sense, domesticating them not only robs them of the activities we value but also of their complexity.

The media are not alone in transforming fire-breathing radicals into kindly patriots.  Historians do a pretty good job of this, and the clearest product of their efforts is the generation of men who led the American Revolution.  I would be willing to bet that at least ninety percent of people do not even think that the “revolution” part of that phrase means what the dictionary tells it means: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.”  The synonyms Google offers are: “rebellion, revolt, insurrection, mutiny, uprising, rioting, insurgence, seizure of power…”  These are not polite words; applied to any contemporary activities, they would almost surely be condemned by the great, great majority of Americans.

The “gentlemen” who led this revolution were no doubt thoughtful and principled.  They stood for many of the same principles we hold “to be self evident.”  But the differences between them and us are multifold: first and foremost, they were willing to die for these principles, and many explicitly acknowledged that commitment; second, they were bringing a new order into being, trying to shed autocracy for democracy.  They were change agents.  In our attachment, we stand for the status quo, even, I might add, if the actual status quo does not live up to those principles.

It has become a cliché to say that history is written through the eyes of the present.  We might add that it is written to advocate for a particular ideological position in the present, whether it is states rights or federalism, for instance.  So, in fact, we don’t always domesticate historical heroes.  Sometimes, as in the case of John Brown, we play up their violence as a lesson to contemporaries who even think that insurgency is a good idea.  Bottom line, though, consciously and unconsciously, historians distort what they report, either to prove a point or because they are so imbued with contemporary values and viewpoints, that they lack perspective.

Maybe the most glaring instance of historical distortion is the one imposed on judicial decision making by the “Constitutional Originalists.”  Led by Justice Scalia, the Originalists treat the Constitution the way religious fundamentalists treat the bible—as literal truth.  Then they contend that they know the intention of those who authored the Constitution and of the other Founding Fathers.  Really?  How do they know those intentions.  Serious historians have been struggling to understand these intentions for centuries.  They have also disagreed in countless ways.  If they are to be taken at their word, then we simply have to conclude that the Originalists are poor historians, ignorant and obviously biased.

But to avoid being a literalist myself and getting into an argument about what the Founders’ intentions really were, I would like to emphasize the more important point.  The authors were practical revolutionaries, dedicated to change, flexibility, adaptability.  They would never prescribe, in exact terms, how generations hundreds of years hence, should conduct their affairs.  Rather, as Jefferson often argued, each generation must make its own decisions.  It is totally ridiculous to use them in the service of a fundamentalist style conservatism.

Then, too, we might remove the halo from our Founders.  As great a service as they performed, they also solidified the institution of slavery in American society.  They famously “compromised,” trading slavery to induce the South to join the Union.  The importance of the Union has gotten a free pass in our historical telling.  What, we may ask, was so holy about all getting together.  Maybe two nations would have been a successful way to go.  And, as an aside, wouldn’t the whole Progressive urge in America have been better realized without the South?

Finally, I want to add a word about ordinary people like me.  We are like the historians.  We often join in the process of disarming ourselves.  We make fun of ourselves, of our youth, of the fire and passion that made it so engaging, so much fun.  Part of this has to do with perspective—sometimes called wisdom—gained over the years.  But part of it has to do with not making too many waves.  We grow vulnerable with age, and we love to be loved.  By joining in the stories of misbegotten youth, we remove our own claws.  That’s a good thing—sometimes—but sometimes we should keep the fire going.