Saturday, July 05, 2014

165.5 - Thoughts for the Fourth: on patriotism

Thoughts for the Fourth: on patriotism

I have a whole bunch of other things I wanted to talk about, other Supreme Court decisions, Iraq, lots of stuff. But I will have to put that off because I need to do this this week.

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.

For the rest of the show I'm going to reprise something I said last year around this time. Maybe I'll do it every year. Kind of like my annual Fourth of July show.

Because the Fourth is not just a time for fun; it's also, of course, traditionally a day of patriotism, of celebrating our nation and our heritage. And that's what I want to talk about: what it means to be, as I see it, an American patriot.

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 and to achieve independence. That history, that principle, should form the basis of our patriotism.

I never used to think of myself as patriotic; I never used to think about it much one way or the other. I used to be somewhat confused about the notion of are you proud to be an American; I would think "How can I be proud of it; I had nothing to do with it. I was born here. how can I be proud of something I had nothing to do with?" I thought - and still think, in fact - that the only people who could legitimately be proud of being american are immigrants, people who made the conscious decision to come here. For me it was really a matter of chance; I might just as well be proud of being left-handed, because I had every bit as much to do with that.

At one point, though, I started thinking about a better way to phrase the question "Are you proud to be an American," one that involves the "you" in a way beyond an accident of birth - thinking, that is, of the question as being "Are you proud of what it means to be an American; are you proud of what the concept 'American; says to the rest of the world."

That point, that thinking of patriotism that way - thinking of principles, beliefs, and so on, thinking of it in that context - came during the presidential campaign of 2008. Barack Obama made a speech defending his own patriotism, which had been under attack. In the course of that speech he went out of his way to attack the antiwar activists and the counterculture of the 1960s. And it was "out of his way." If you read the speech - which I did - you could see that that whole section could be removed without impinging on his overall argument. It was just a ritualistic denunciation of an entire era and the people who symbolized it. Bluntly put, Barack Obama was defending his patriotism by attacking that of others - including mine. And yes, I took it personally.
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 our school history textbooks would be calling heroes, are instead now being labeled as traitors and yes, I am thinking of Edward Snowden and Chelsea 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, of what it means to be a patriotic american:

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 this 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 it up in a single phrase from the Preamble to the Constitution, the ideal of 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 also 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.

For example, We are supposed to be a free people. Which means - since we're talking about Iraq take 3 these days - 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 to you that I am about as patriotic as they come. And I have neither patience with nor tolerance for those who would make patriotism a matter of empty gestures and ostentatious decorations rather than conviction.

So you have a great Fourth - and remember the radical, the revolutionary, heritage it celebrates.

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