Thursday, July 04, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #115 - Part 6

Thoughts for the Fourth

This show will be seen in the week including the Fourth of July. I hope you enjoyed your Fourth, I hope you got to see some fireworks or watch a parade or have a barbecue or a picnic or just loll in your yard or chill on your couch with a cool drink. The Fourth is a time for fun and I hope you had your share.

It's also, of course, traditionally a day of patriotism, of celebrating our nation and our heritage. So let me start by reminding you just what it is we are supposed to be celebrating, what heritage we are supposed to be honoring.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

That is the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted on July 4, 1776, which is why July 4 is the holiday.

Which means the Fourth is about celebrating a history of revolution, celebrating the right and duty of people to resist oppression. That history, that principle, should form the basis of our patriotism. So the Fourth is also an appropriate time to talk about patriotism, so that's what I'm going to do. I'll note at the top that a fair amount of what I'm going to say today I said before here, just five weeks ago. I don't care; it bears repeating.

I never used to think of myself as patriotic; I never used to think about it much one way or the other. I actually started thinking about what patriotism is - thinking of principles, beliefs, and so on, thinking of it in that context - during the presidential campaign of 2008. Barack Obama made a speech defending his own patriotism, in the course of which he went out of his way to attack the antiwar activists and the counterculture of the 1960s. Bluntly put, he was defending his patriotism by attacking that of others - including mine.

Sadly, too many people, especially among politicians, follow suit, making patriotism a matter of political or social gain rather than substance, a matter of ostentatious display, of flag pins and the Star Spangled Banner and swirling music and fluttering flags. Next time you see a political debate, amuse yourself by noting how many of the men are dressed in red, white, and blue: red tie, white shirt, blue suit.

I say that patriotism measured in terms of wearing flag pins, of having your hand over your heart during the national anthem, and the like is worthless, dangerous, and shallow. It is a hollow "patriotism," a shell that prefers form to substance and too easily, as we too often have seen over the last years, slides from "patriotism" into jingoism, as even now people who, had they done the equivalent against the British government in 1776, we would be hailing in our school history textbooks as heroes, are instead being labeled as traitors and yes I am thinking of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, among others.

Before I go any further, don't anyone bother claiming I said wearing a flag pin or whatever is "hollow." I said no such thing. I said that a patriotism measured in those terms is hollow. And it is.

So here is my understanding of patriotism:

Some years ago I read the comment about patriotism that "it is natural to have an abiding affection for the land of one's birth." I completely agree with that. But going beyond that, I say being a US patriot means being dedicated to the ideals on which the country was supposed to have been founded and which, at its best moments, it strives to uphold in as full a measure as we can manage: Ideals such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as the right to rebellion against oppression, as "promoting the general welfare," as political freedoms, as representative government "of, by, and for the people" - the ideal of, to sum up in a single phrase from the Preamble to the Constitution, an intent to "establish justice," a justice I say must include the economic and the social as well as the political if it is to have real meaning.

Patriotism, that is, lies in the devotion to the ideals, not in any symbolic outward expression of it.

I do not wear a flag pin. I do not put my hand over my heart during the national anthem (which, I'll note in passing, I was taught as a child was something that some folks did but was not required). I do not sing along with the national anthem. In fact - and I know this will provide ammo for some and lead others to say I undermine my argument, but I don't care, it's the truth - I don't even stand up for the national anthem. Because patriotism does not lie in symbols or gestures.

Further, patriotism does not lie in support for or opposition to any particular party or policy except insofar as that support or opposition is an expression of that internal commitment to those ideals.

We are supposed to be a free people. Which means that an opponent of the Iraq war who was angered by the Executive branch's usurpation of power is much more patriotic than a war supporter who kept referring to the president as "the commander-in-chief" as if we were all soldiers expected to obey orders rather than citizens with the obligation held by any free people to "question authority."

We are supposed to be a daring people. We applaud ourselves for how we "dared" to cross the oceans, how we "dared" to cross the plains and prairies, how we "dared" to step out into space. Which means that an opponent of NSA spying is more patriotic, is more in keeping with what we tell ourselves about our heritage, than those who applaud the stripping away of our privacy and our rights as they cower in fear of a dark and vaguely-defined "other."

So I'm not patriotic as the term has unhappily come to be understood by too many: no flag pins, no singing of the national anthem, none of that. But if patriotism can be understood as embracing the ideals of our nation, as striving to hold this country to the highest of those ideals instead of the lowest of its prejudices, if it can be understood as committing to a notion of what the US, of what we as a people, can be and have at times approached being, then I submit that I am as patriotic as they come. And I have neither patience with nor tolerance for those who would make patriotism a matter of gestures and decorations rather than conviction.

Even many professional grouches (like me) are actually unregenerate romantics whose sharp words are honed on the inexplicable, indefensible, yet utterly unshakable conviction that things not only should be but can be better than they are.

Some years ago, I wrote to a friend that "our strongest, surest beliefs are those we don't even know we have until we find them within us." That is, our deepest, most abiding beliefs and commitments are not born consciously of careful philosophical argumentation and reasoned analysis but grow naturally from our root moral and ethical convictions. That argumentation, those analyses, can give form to those convictions, they can provide them with substance and weight and direction, but they do not drive them - rather, they are driven by them.

So despite my tendency to argue my points rationally with facts and figures and references - one of my favorite quotes is "passion and substance are not mutually exclusive" - still it's important for me to drop away on occasion from "here's the data, here's the logic, here's the conclusion" to the fundamental, baseline, radical place where I can say, simply, "I believe."

I believe that life is our highest good and advancing life is our highest ideal. I believe whatever advances life, improves life, is an expression of our humanity, that self-awareness, that capacity for love, that reach for hope that separates us from the other animals of the Earth. I believe that which opposes life, which advances hunger, oppression, and violence, are a rejection of that quality, a rejection of our humanity. I believe that to be human is to reach for life, for our potential. And I believe that is patriotic.

I believe in family, a broad, deep sense of family, of family as based on commitment, not on ceremonies, as based on ties the heart, not on ties of the blood. I believe we must reach beyond the personal to the public; beyond self to others; beyond us and them to we; beyond the individual to the community. And I believe that is patriotic.

I believe we have social obligations, moral commitments to a type of extended family that includes strangers, people who we'll never see, never meet, never have any contact with, but with who we share a mutual obligation, a mutual moral duty, a community extending even to the community of humanity. And I believe that is patriotic.

I believe we must ultimately reject the right of so few to have so much when so many have so little, reject the power of so few to control so much when so many control so little. I believe in the right of every human being to a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression and I believe in the duty of every member of society to strive to guarantee that right to all others. I believe that while we should have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone’s aspirations, we should desire to put a floor under everyone’s needs. And I believe that is patriotic.

I believe, ultimately, in justice: not in perfection or idealized utopias, but in human justice, one that rejects ascendancy of bombs over bread, of private greed over public good, of profits over people. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life. A justice that embraces the economic, the social, and the political. And finally, I believe in the indivisibility of that justice: It must be justice for “them” as well as for “us,” for enemy as for friend, or it’s not justice at all but mere favoritism. And I believe that all of that is patriotic.

I may sound like a philosopher, but what I’m interested in is change: not slogans, not philosophies, but getting-the-job-done type change. We have to be factual, practical, in our programs. As the Italian pacifist Danilo Dolci said, “Faith does not move mountains. Work, exacting work, moves mountains.”

But when I say “practical,” I don’t mean it in the sense of the liberals and the so-called progressives, those people who lower their sights, harden their hearts, darken their vision, and then congratulate themselves on their “realism.” You know the saying “I dream dreams of things that never were and ask Why not?” What we have to do is dream dreams of things that never were and ask “How?” How? What are the practical steps we can take right now, today? We have to approach the world with steel in our eyes.

But we can’t let the steel in our eyes cloud the dream. We have to hold to the vision of what we as a people, what we as a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse or even less, that it just get worse more slowly. Achieving wide-ranging justice will not be easy, cheap, or convenient - but it is possible and after all is said and done it is simply the right thing to do. And fighting that fight, that fight to “establish justice,” is the very essence of what it means to be patriotic.

I have tried to be a steely-eyed dreamer with varying degrees of success; usually it was a little long on the steel and a little short on the dream, a position that makes unnecessary compromise a little too easy and risk a little too - well, risky.

I've come to a point in my life when I've begun to slow down. I haven't spent as much time on the streets as I did in earlier years - nor as much as I'd like to - and my energy level simply isn't what it was. I find it harder to keep my spirits up and many discouraged days I don't regret that I won't live to experience the world I see coming at such times.

And yet in spite of that, maybe even because of that, recently I have begun to look more the the dream than the steel. So despite it all, despite all logic, despite a mountain of evidence, and without any good reason, I still believe that things must be, can be, better than they are, that it is possible. I just do. And will. I will continue to be a patriot.


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