Saturday, January 28, 2017

What Patriotism Means to a Liberal

The other day I was taken aback when I heard a nice, intelligent-sounding young woman explain why she disapproved of Barack Obama and supported Donald Trump: she said she thought Trump has more pride in America. I think it really jolted me because I had just listened to Obama's farewell address, and it was absolutely packed with patriotic themes: with references to American history, to freedom, to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and much more. It seemed like the essence of patriotism to me.

Of course, it was a very different kind of patriotic expression than Trump's, and maybe that's why it didn't seem like patriotism to her at all. And Trump's approach, with its appeals to fear and jingoism, had never seemed like patriotism to me. Frankly, Trump's idea of American pride scares me. We all know that pride has a dark side. In people and in nations, pride can be healthy self-respect, but it can also be a destructive arrogance. Trump's American pride strikes me as the second kind--the kind of belligerent, uncritical nationalism that has caused untold suffering in recent centuries.

Patriotism can simply be another word for nationalism, and I think anybody will agree that nationalism also has a dark side. The most extreme example, of course, is Nazi Germany; a case of runaway nationalism that caused one of the greatest tragedies in human history. After living through it, Albert Einstein called nationalism "the measles of mankind". I can see his point.

But I want to be clear. I'm not saying Trumpism is equivalent to Nazism. I'm just saying it leans in that ultra-nationalist direction much more than I am comfortable with. At the same time, I think patriotism can be a good thing. Patriotism can simply mean loving one's country, and I do love my country. Many conservatives have the idea that liberals don't love America. I've even heard some say that liberals like Obama hate America. We don't. We love our country, but we have a different idea of what that means, and how to express it. Our love of country--our patriotism--doesn't look the same as the conservative version, and I think that's why conservatives sometimes have difficulty recognizing it.

So, I'd like to clarify what patriotism means for liberals (or at least this liberal), and why I can't agree with Trump's version of it. My purpose here isn't to denounce anybody, but to explain why I, and millions of other liberals, love our country, and what that means.

Before I can explain what my patriotism is, though, I have to explain what it isn't. Please bear with me through the negatives--I'll get to the positives.

My patriotism isn't about declaring that my country can do no wrong. Clearly, it has done wrong. Look at slavery. Look at Jim Crow. Look at how we treated Native Americans. It serves no purpose to pretend those things never happened. Nothing good can come of declaring, "My country, right or wrong". To do so lets us excuse whatever we do, right or wrong, simply because it is us doing it.

My patriotism isn't about an aggressive belligerence toward other countries. It isn't the "my way or the highway" attitude George W. Bush showed the world, and Trump is now showing. Many other countries, and their citizens, have achieved great things, and deserve our respect. America shouldn't act like a swaggering high school bully any more than the bully should. If that approach is wrong for an individual, why should it be right for an entire nation? Besides, as I mentioned above, history has shown that we aren't always in the right.

My patriotism isn't about thinking our leaders and their policies can't be criticized. This was also a view of patriotism that developed during the Bush years, and many times before. Remember the Dixie Chicks? I suspect it's going to make a comeback under Trump. But what kind of sense does such an idea of patriotism make in a democratic republic? Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and as the Declaration of Independence says, it "derives its just powers from the consent of the governed". That means the governed should always be able to speak their conscience, whether in dissent or agreement with official policies or with the opinion of the majority.

My patriotism isn't necessarily militaristic. Of course I honor the sacrifices and bravery of the people who have fought and died on behalf of this country. Their sacrifice is greater than any I'm ever likely to make. At the same time, not every military action our country has engaged in, or might engage in, is justified. Some of our wars should not have been fought, and that can't be changed by the terrible fact that Americans died fighting them. That is tragic, but it's true. Politicians learned long ago to suppress dissent by starting wars and then claiming that questioning those wars is equivalent to disrespecting our troops. It isn't equivalent, and we should never let politicians use our soldiers' sacrifice as a tactic of manipulation. And we should never let them send our soldiers off to risk their lives in an unjust war.

My patriotism isn't about a quasi-religious reverence for symbols like the flag. It seems to me that what's really important isn't the symbol, but the principles it represents--the principles expressed in the Declaration and Constitution. Similarly, my patriotism isn't about forced expressions of allegiance to those symbols, as in the Pledge of Allegiance. I've never thought it made sense to affirm our freedoms by requiring people to stand up and recite a pledge in unison. Where is the freedom in that? Besides, the Pledge isn't a founding document like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. It was created by a Christian socialist Baptist minister (imagine that!) in 1892, as a part of a campaign to sell American flags. The "under God" part wasn't added until 1954--around the same time that "In God We Trust" was added to our money. And that brings us to religion...

My patriotism isn't about linking American pride or identity to Christianity, or any particular religion. Many of our founders were freethinkers, not orthodox Christians, and they were careful to separate religion and government, on the theory that good fences make good neighbors. James Madison modeled the First Amendment on the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson later said that mention of Jesus was expressly left out of that statute, because it was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." Freedom of religion is one of most precious things we have in this country, but today the phrase has been twisted to mean the freedom to discriminate. That's the very opposite of what freedom of religion is about. It's about the freedom to believe, or not, according to your conscience, not to impose your belief on others. As a freethinker myself, I'm following a tradition that goes back to Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine. Should those original patriots be considered unpatriotic because they weren't orthodox Christians?

Similarly, my patriotism isn't about imagining that "real" Americans come in any particular race or religion. A white Baptist cowboy born in Texas is not one speck "more American" than a gay Filipino Muslim in born in California...or a Hindu born in India and naturalized as an American citizen. To think otherwise is to misunderstand what this country is about. It's about freedom, diversity, and opportunity; not any particular race or religion. If you want to see a truly deep kind of patriotism, go to a business owned by a naturalized immigrant with an accent. Very often you'll find a picture of them proudly standing in front of the flag on the day they became an American citizen.

That's why my patriotism also isn't about suspicion of foreigners, or the idea that my life is more important than anyone else's because I was lucky enough to be born in this country. I recently heard a Trump supporter say he thinks one American life is worth millions of foreign lives. Millions! I once heard someone say, "I'm a nationalist. I don't care what happens to foreigners". I'm appalled by that attitude. It seems both cruel and nonsensical to me, and here's why: imagine that a Muslim child is adopted from Syria and raised as an American Christian. Does that event magically change something and make her life more important than if she had stayed in Syria? More important than if she had stayed Muslim? If so where does that happen? At the border? When she is baptized? Does it make her hopes and fears, her pains and aspirations, less real? Of course it doesn't. My birthplace might make me luckier than others, but it doesn't make me better than others, or my life more valuable.

OK. Enough about what my idea of patriotism isn't. Now let me say what it is.

My idea of patriotism and pride in my country was best stated by a German immigrant named Carl Shurz, who became an American citizen, a Union general, a United States senator, and Secretary of the Interior. In 1899, he spoke in opposition to people using patriotism as an excuse to annex land after the Spanish-American war.
I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.'
That's my idea of patriotism: not to declare that our country is always right just because it's our country, but to strive to make sure it actually is right. What patriotism means to me is a continuing struggle to achieve the promises our country was founded on: that we are all created equal, that governments are created by the people and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that we have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of the press, assembly, petition, and all the other principles in the Bill of Rights. Those are principles that generations of Americans have have fought--and still fight--to turn into realities.

It's a continuing struggle. I think that's important to remember. The principles in the Declaration and Constitution were set down over 240 years ago by people we rightfully call founders, but that was only the beginning. When the Declaration was written, its authors had no intention of treating all men--or all people--as if they were created equal. Only property-owning white men had all the rights of citizens, and millions were enslaved--the Constitution referred to them as "three fifths of all other persons". The Bill of Rights was widely ignored, and didn't even apply to the states at first. What had to happen next, to begin achieving the promise of our founding documents, was best expressed by Martin Luther King: people had to "cash the check" those documents had written.

People had to fight to hold their country to its promise that we are all created equal, and have inalienable rights. It's often said that we owe our freedom and rights to our veterans who fought for them, and that's absolutely true, but we owe them to others as well. We owe them to the people who fought with words and activism instead of guns; who fought in the courts, in Congress, in the newspapers, and on the streets to abolish slavery, to secure the vote for women, to gain citizenship for Native Americans, to overturn Jim Crow, to fight discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity, and on and on and on. Many of those people died before they ever saw the fruits of what they fought for. Think about that: Dred Scott died before slavery was abolished. Elizabeth Cady Stanton never saw women voting. Homer Plessy didn't live to see Rosa Parks win the fight he lost. I once came across Plessy's tomb in New Orleans, and stood there awestruck by that brave man fighting for rights he would never see realized. That's why I consider these people, and many others like them, to be founders of our country just as much as Jefferson or Madison, because they helped fulfill the promises those original founders made, but didn't keep.

So that's my idea of patriotism. I love my country, and because of that, I want it to fulfill its promise. And I don't think it's unpatriotic to say it still has work to do. I want my country to keep the principles it was founded on, and the rights and freedoms its citizens have won since then. My patriotism is about fighting to make sure we achieve a country with real freedom of religion, real freedom of expression, real due process of law, real government by the people, and real equality for all Americans. That's what patriotism means to me.

But it means something else, too. As I wrote the words above just now, I realized I haven't really earned the right to attempt soaring rhetoric. How much have I sacrificed to make the principles of the Declaration and Constitution a reality? What have I done, compared to people like George Washington, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, or scores of others? Not much. Not yet. Yes, my patriotism is about pride, because I'm proud of what my country has achieved,but it's also about modesty: modesty on the national level in recognizing that our country has not fully realized its promise, and modesty on a personal level, in recognizing that my contribution so far has been slight. My patriotism, then, is about recognizing that what's truly great about America are the rights and freedoms people before me have fought for in struggles I can hardly imagine.

Finally, my patriotism is about understanding that those rights and freedoms have to be protected. It's about realizing there will always be people like Donald Trump, who will try to chip away at them, and perversely claim to do so in the name of patriotism. And if I ever want to think of myself as a patriot--as someone who works to make his country right and keep his country right--I have to do my part to keep that from happening.