Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On progressive patriotism.

As part of my Fourth of July festivities yesterday, I went with some family and friends to Long Beach to watch the fireworks display on the Harbor next to the Queen Mary. As we arrived at the parking lot for the event, I noticed some familiar bumper stickers.

I saw "America: love it or leave it" more than a few times. There were other jingoistic decals expressing similar sentiments, as well as the more common associations of our country with a dominant religious creed--crosses in the colors of the American flag, and various other items.

It got me to thinking: what is the nature of patriotism? What is the nature of progressive patriotism? These are all questions that have been asked before--but I'm going to throw my hat into the ring nonetheless.

Every July 4th, we gather by custom to celebrate the birthday of our nation. But when we do, we're not merely celebrating the existence of our country because it's our country and we live here. We are, in fact, celebrating the creation of an idea that didn't really exist before our country's birthday came along. We celebrate the grand experiment of government by the consent of the governed.

The majority of us now consider the inherent superiority of this concept to be self-evident; but back in the days of its inception it was considered dangerous. Radical. Treasonous.

But despite the risks, our Founders had the courage to implement these ideals and give their lives for them if need be--and they did so out of an inalienable dedication to the idea of progress. They did so out of a firm, unwavering belief that humanity deserved better than to live under despotism; that their fellow countrymen should be citizens rather than subjects; that government should be accountable, not autocratic.

They risked their lives precisely because they thought that progress was not just possible, but necessary.

Can you imagine what any of us would say about someone who said to the revolutionaries of the day, "The Colonies: love 'em or leave 'em!"? Someone who said, "well, if you hate England so much, just move into Indian territory and see how they treat you!" We would call this person a freedom-hating royalist Tory unfit to associate with freedom-loving idealists. Well, the same thing holds true today.

There are those in our country today who are familiar and comfortable with the idea of unrighteous dominion. There are people who believe that the heart of patriotism can be found in the idea of unquestioning obedience to the leadership and the symbols of one's country. These people will engage in the most fervent forms of "patriotic" support--but it is not designed to be a way of expressing love for one's country. It is designed, rather, as a way of shirking the larger and more uncomfortable moral questions of the day. It may be loyal, but it is hardly patriotic.

True patriotism--a true love for one's country and the ideals it represents--is, and always will be, accompanied by critique and complaint. By dissent. By a desire to set wrongs right. It is founded on a belief that there is never such a thing as good enough. That as long as there is one person in our country who is hungry, our mission is not done. If there is one person who cannot afford health insurance, then we can do better. If there is one child living in poverty, we have failed somewhere along the line.

True patriotism is progressive patriotism. It is founded on the idea embodied by Thomas Jefferson that enlightenment is a continuous process:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.

As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners of opinions change, with the change in circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.


True patriots understand that critique and disapproval are necessary parts of engendering improvement. Imagine, if you will, two fathers (or mothers--same example). One father refuses to critique or discipline his child because the child is his and he must stand by it, right or wrong. The other father offers critique where appropriate, encouragement where appropriate, and scolding where necessary.

There is no doubt in anyone's mind--not even the most jingoistic conservative you could imagine--about whose child will end up being the better citizen. Well, maintaining a country is like raising a child. Like children, our country is always growing. It is evolving. And we are not merely citizens of our country--we are its parents as well. Its caretakers. And doing a proper job of parenting requires time, attention and care. In the same way that we demand to know where our teenager is going late at night, we have to demand to know what bills our government is passing late at night.

The abolitionist Wendell Phillips said,


Eternal Vigilance is the price of liberty.


Over 150 years thereafter, NRA head Wayne LaPierre said something similar:

Freedom is never an achieved state; like electricity, we've got to keep generating it or the lights go out.


There are those who say that constant critique, constant attention and constant vigilance is unpatriotic and hurts our country. But such attention should not only be tolerated--it should be required of all those who value not only what their country is now, but indeed, all who value their vision of what our country can be in the future.

Sometimes, our country starts "acting out" and needs a little "tough love." And that, my friends, is the highest form of patriotism--progressive style.

[Cross-posted from MyLeftWing]

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