Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Notes on Patriotism and Celebrating America

If we pause for the passing moment, if we rest on our achievements, if we resist the pace of progress . . . those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future. --President John F. Kennedy

Each year on the Fourth of July, we join as a people to celebrate the birth of a nation, unified not by a common culture but by a set of founding principles, that all men are created equal, possessed of the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When I was in law school in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980’s, I made it a point to attend the free outdoor concerts on the Mall, courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra in celebration of national holidays. With fireworks lighting up the night sky, the sounds of America the Beautiful emanating from the reflecting pool, and the great memorials to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln glowing in the background, a mass of humanity gathered in front of the beautifully lighted U.S. Capitol building as American flags waved and patriotic spirit filled the air. It was easy, in such a setting, to feel overwhelming pride as an American citizen, lucky and blessed I am to live and work in a land endowed with such a rich and glorious history, one founded on the ideals of democracy, liberty and human rights.

I am proud of America for its many accomplishments; for its diversity of peoples, cultures and talent; its abundant natural resources and breathtaking landscapes; its immigrant heritage and vast opportunities. Most of all, I love what America stands for – freedom, equality, democracy, and the rule of law – concepts born during the Enlightenment and bred in a Revolution. Led by an exceptional group of wise statesmen and brave soldiers, intellectuals and leaders, men such as Adams and Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, Franklin and Washington guided us to independence and founded a new republic that remains a beacon of light and a symbol of hope to the world. America has remained faithful through the years to the ideals of governance and civic engagement embodied in the Constitution: the freedom of speech and of political and artistic expression; the freedom to vote and to peaceably assemble; the freedom to pray and worship (or not) without government direction or interference; the freedom to travel, study, work, and live where one chooses; and the freedom from arbitrary detention and unreasonable searches and seizures. To take such rights for granted is to ignore world history and fail to realize that these rights are not universally shared and were born of a courageous and violent revolution led by a brave and valiant people.

Although the United States remains a young nation in the annals of history, only 234 years into this grand experiment, we are old enough to have experienced growing pains from the tensions and contradictions between the ideals expressed in our founding documents and their implemented realities. Grand affirmations of equality and justice in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution notwithstanding, we are sobered by the reality that our forefathers formed a union less than perfect, one that disallowed the freedoms and privileges of citizenship to persons of color. The country at its birth sanctioned the historical injustice of slavery, an evil that would haunt the nation for eight more decades and lead to a prolonged and bloody civil war, followed by a century of further oppression in the forms of lynch mobs, Jim Crow laws, and government-enforced segregation.

To study American history is, in part, to chronicle the distance between the ideals of American democracy and the realities of American life. One cannot proclaim to love America, yet ignore its blemishes. A true patriot recognizes the glorious nature of America’s past, but strives constantly to achieve that which our founders hoped to achieve – “to form a more perfect Union” as stated in the preamble to the Constitution – and to narrow the distance between our ideals and our shortcomings. In 1852, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" Refusing on that day to celebrate the anniversary of America's founding, Douglass told an audience in Rochester, New York, "Above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them." By holding the immoral vice of bondage up to the light of American tradition and culture, Douglass demonstrated a genuine form of patriotism. He so cared for and loved his country that he refused to remain silent while America fell short of its ideals. Eleven years later, in part due to the persistence of Douglass and the abolitionist movement, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, thus ending America’s acquiescence in the institution of slavery.

Too many Americans equate patriotism with flag-waving and “Support Our Troops” ribbons, secure in the belief that those who fail to so express themselves are insufficiently supportive of American institutions and of our men and women in uniform. President Obama was criticized (and never forgiven by some) for not wearing a U.S. flag lapel-pin on one occasion during the presidential campaign, and then for daring to suggest that wearing the right pin, or tie, or bumper sticker is not necessary to reflect one’s love of country. Some on the right confuse patriotism with nationalism, requiring blind loyalty to American institutions and believing that America is innately better than all other nations, that we are a nation chosen by God to fulfill a destiny to which others fall short.

Symbols, flags, and banners have their place, and some on the left are too quick to dismiss their importance. Monuments and memorials, statues and parks, songs and posters offer inspiration to the nation as it seeks to fulfill its promise. It is right and proper to celebrate, care for, and display the symbols of our democracy – tributes to Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln; the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell; the carvings of Mount Rushmore; and the many memorials to our fallen soldiers. It is important to our sense of national unity and common purpose that Americans of all races and backgrounds, faiths and political leanings share in civic pride and celebrate our history. The revolutionary spirit that became the Miracle of Philadelphia is indeed worthy of fireworks displays and symphony orchestras. But while traditions have their place, and celebrations of national identity are good for the American spirit, we must temper our pride with humility and the recognition of past failings.

In August 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he was surrounded by the symbols of American democracy. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” King said, “they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King’s words were spoken nearly a century after we had fought a Civil War and ended slavery, nearly 180 years after we had founded a republic on the promise of freedom and justice for all. But despite this passage of time, our nation had fallen short of the ideals espoused in those “magnificent words”. King believed in the promise of America and the moral virtue of its foundation. It was time, therefore, “to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children [and] to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

America today is a better, more fair and just nation than the America that existed prior to King’s life and death. Shortly after King’s famous speech, the United States enacted landmark legislation that banned discrimination in all public accommodations (Civil Rights Act of 1964) and that made the right to vote a reality for millions of previously disenfranchised citizens (Voting Rights Act of 1965). By mobilizing a non-violent army of concerned citizens, who wished not to denigrate America but to make it better, King and his followers succeeded in convincing the country – and a majority of our elected representatives – that the moral promise of America had fallen short but that, through the moral force of equal justice under the law, American society could be transformed, the promise of its founding fulfilled.

Within a few years of the March on Washington, America was a deeply divided country, torn over the Vietnam War and the slow but advancing progress of civil rights. Political and social discontent, anti-war demonstrations, and criticism of American society’s treatment of blacks, women, and other minorities stirred resentment and cries of anti-Americanism. A growing nationalism took root in parts of the country. Bumper stickers and slogans expressed intolerance and an increasing impatience with political dissent: America: Right or Wrong and America: Love It or Leave It. Americans stopped listening; although we spoke the same language, we shouted past each other. Dissent became confused with anti-Americanism, nationalism with patriotism.

America at its best is a nation that welcomes immigrants to its shores, that opens its schools and universities to students of all colors, faiths, and cultures, that promotes and celebrates the diversity of its people and the genius of its civic governance. America at its best provides equal opportunities for all to succeed, free from discrimination and prejudice; cares for its land, air, and water; shows compassion for its less advantaged citizens; applies the rule of law without passion or prejudice to corporate CEO’s and sanitation workers alike; comes to the aid of friends and stands ready to defend liberty.

We should boldly celebrate and take pride in America at its best; we must constantly push and prod America when it falls short. A true patriot cares as much about correcting our shortcomings as honoring and celebrating our achievements. If we celebrate our past uncritically while ignoring our historic sins – slavery and segregation; our shameful treatment of Native Americans; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II – we risk descending from a nation of hope and promise to one of apathy and despair.

There are, of course, many ways to express one’s patriotism, and it matters not whether one is liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. Peter Beinart, in a thoughtful Time magazine essay in 2008, explained the essence and virtues of true patriotism:

When it comes to patriotism, conservatives and liberals need each other, because love of country requires both affirmation and criticism. It's a good thing that Americans fly the flag on July 4. In a country as diverse as ours, patriotic symbols are a powerful balm. And if people stopped flying the flag every time the government did something they didn't like, it would become an emblem not of national unity but of political division. On the other hand, waving a flag, like holding a Bible, is supposed to be a spur to action. When it becomes an end in itself, America needs people willing to follow in the footsteps of the prophets and remind us that complacent ritual can be the enemy of true devotion.

Patriotism should be proud but not blind, critical yet loving. And liberals and conservatives should agree that if patriotism entails no sacrifice, if it is all faith and no works, then something has gone wrong. The American who volunteers to fight in Iraq and the American who protests the war both express a truer patriotism than the American who treats it as a distant spectacle with no claim on his talents or conscience.
True patriotism encompasses love of country, but not blind loyalty; a willingness to die for one’s country if called to defend her, but not blanket acceptance of an unjust war. I do not frequently wave the flag or wear lapel pins, but I believe that America can someday achieve the greatness and near perfection its founders envisioned. Patriotism requires that we constantly strive to achieve “a more perfect Union”; and that, as was done to achieve the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we urge, push and prod America and its government to live up to the words espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of its founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

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