Jhere are two good reasons why every American progressive should be a patriot. One is emotional, the other practical – and they reinforce each other.
I love my country. I love our passionate and endlessly inventive musical, sporting, literary and film culture, which has thrilled and influenced people all over the world. I cherish our civic ideals of social equality, individual liberty, and populist democracy, and the endless struggle to put into practice their laudable, if often contradictory, demands.
But you don’t need to share my emotion to recognize a political reality: one cannot engage effectively in the democratic process without being part of a community of feelings. And for most Americans, their nation, with all its flaws, is a community they are prepared to defend.
The emblematic figures of the left have always understood this. They demonstrated that American patriotism could serve tolerant and egalitarian goals as well as racist, authoritarian and imperialist goals. Tom Paine hailed his adopted homeland as a “haven for mankind”, which gave him a forum to speak out against regressive taxes and landed aristocracies. Frederick Douglass based his hopes for the abolition of slavery on “the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions” as well as an interracial movement for freedom. Eugene Debs described socialism, in the American idiom, as “the equal rights of all to manage and control” society; while Mother Jones, the great labor organizer, accused the coal miners of crushing the self-esteem of their workers. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed during the Montgomery bus boycott that “if we are wrong, this nation’s Supreme Court is wrong” and “the great glory of American democracy is the right to demonstrate for good”.
Most of these personalities, in their own way, also engaged in a transnational effort to advance equality and tolerance. But each also depended on the power and legitimacy of American ideals to gain mass support for the changes they wanted.
At the time when the American army was burning Indochina and killing its people, I gave up the belief that one could be both a patriot and a moral person. I didn’t burn any flags, but neither did I condemn those who did. However, I was becoming increasingly concerned about the contradiction between the total transformation that we neo-leftists sought to bring about and our growing alienation from the mass of our fellow citizens whom we would need to join us in the fight for states. United better. When I read, in 1970, the reflection of the black leftist Julius Lester according to which “the American radicals are perhaps the first radicals who have sought to make a revolution in a country which they hate”, it seemed to me both deep and painful.
Patriotism will continue to thrive whether progressives embrace it or not. When leftist intellectuals and activists stopped speaking in terms of American ideals in the late 1960s and after, they lost the ability to speak convincingly to their fellow citizens. Although leftist intellectuals can take credit for spearheading a multicultural and gender-sensitive revision of the humanities and social sciences, their record outside of the academy has been far less impressive. The right has long set the political agenda, in part because its supporters have spoken forcefully on behalf of American principles that unite such disparate groups as anti-union businessmen, white evangelicals, Jewish neoconservatives and Catholics. traditionalists.
We should take the brutal treatment of Uyghurs in China as seriously as we take police killings of black people at home. And climate change obviously cannot be stopped or reversed within national borders. But political power still rests with nation states and their governments – and will remain so for a very long time. No planetary government is on the horizon.
Lefties don’t need to chant patriotic slogans or affix flag pins to their lapels or purses. But to rail against patriotism and its symbols is to fight a losing battle, a battle that marginalizes us and pits us against the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Past progressives have bequeathed a rich reservoir of pronouncements on how to join activism with Americanist ends. Langston Hughes, for example, expressed his vision during the Great Depression:
May America be the dream dreamers dreamed of –
Let it be this great and strong land of love
Where never kings plot nor tyrants plot
May every man be crushed by the one above….
I say it clearly,
America was never America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Throughout history, and still today, the most effective way to love our country is to fight like hell to change it.
Jn January, an Indian family died while attempting to enter the United States illegally from Canada. Canadian police found their frozen bodies in a field – father, mother and two children – just 12 meters from the border. They may have thought the blizzard and poor visibility would work in their favor, keeping them hidden from the eyes of the US Border Patrol.
I tell this story because it depicts the hypocrisy of liberal patriotism. Belief in the equality of human beings and commitment to the well-being of others less fortunate, as this example shows, is easily let go when it comes to the rights of those considered “others” by accidents of heritage and geography. A country with a border regime that has made instant detention normal even for asylum seekers is not a country that values the dignity of all human beings. Commentators like British author George Monbiot have compared patriotism to racism. In his essay “The New Chauvinism,” Monbiot points out that patriotism produces a propensity to attack other countries and that national allegiance does nothing to reduce human suffering. The United States and its “patriotic” wars are examples of this phenomenon. Monbiot asks rhetorically, “If patriotism weren’t such a powerful force in the United States, could Bush have invaded Iraq?”
As right-wing populism gains strength, some have called on the American left to embrace patriotic sentiments and not leave “love the flag” to white supremacists. This is misguided, as the result would be to eviscerate the left’s already limited commitments to supranational humanitarianism and end the catastrophes caused by America’s patriotic wars. One example is the relative silence of liberals over President Biden’s decision to seize Afghan currency reserves and distribute half of the funds to 9/11 victims. The terms of this plan demonstrate that compensating Americans for an attack that happened more than 20 years ago (and in which no Afghan was directly involved) is worth more than helping the millions of people in Afghanistan on the verge of starvation. Biden’s plan invokes patriotism to cover up the administration’s outrageous cruelty and indifference to mass death. The US invasion, botched withdrawal and theft of Afghan money have left Afghanistan in a famine that could kill hundreds of thousands of people, but those who carry out dictates in the name of patriotism seem well on their way. comfortable with it.
Nationalism, from which patriotism is derived, is deeply invested in maintaining different duties of care, and then in justifying this difference by assigning a greater sense of “merit” to citizens than by intruding on others. These “others” may be the migrants who perish a few meters from the American border. They may also be among the millions of Afghans who have had to endure a US invasion and occupation and must now ensure that money that could provide humanitarian aid is distributed to the victims of a terrorist attack in which they did not did not participate. Patriotism not only gives unearned entitlement to those who wage war, but also places collective blame on those against whom war is waged. If you flirt with patriotism, then its mother, nationalism, will tell you that non-citizens deserve their misfortune.
The left must commit to finding a better balance between a state’s responsibilities to its citizens and its responsibilities to the global community. In the past, the social welfare state has been an argument for left patriotism as it pursues a just and redistributive agenda. This assumption needs to be rethought and its claims to justice challenged as long as the criteria for citizenship remain limited to parental lineage and geography of birth. One possibility would be a thicker concept of citizenship that minimizes arbitrary factors and creates new pathways to citizenship. In their absence, the United States must at least provide more allocations to asylum seekers, refugees, and economic and climate migrants. The argument for this is not patriotism but an internationalism that values human beings no matter where they are or who their parents are.
The growing primacy of the virtual realm in shaping our lives already points to a future in which the world is not so limited by geographic borders. This truth, even without any substantial commitment to equality and justice, proves how foolish it would be to fall back into the xenophobia that patriotism implies. If we can work with, talk to, befriend and love others who don’t share our geography, then why should our ideas of community or belonging be based on territory and lineage? The nationalisms of the moment, however racist, rabid and vociferous, are the remnants of a past where the nation-state was supreme.
We no longer inhabit this world, and our efforts to impose its constructs on our evolving world can only result in tragedies like the one that befell the Indian family trying to get to America. Patriotism is an unfair and dated concept that values tribalism at the expense of equality and human dignity.