It’s that day of the year when I get all sappy and red and white and blue and I don’t care who thinks I’m corny or what stranger shushes me when I sing the Star Spangled Banner in public (that actually happened to me once!).
But let’s talk about why we get all gooey over our country. A lot has been said about it lately, in relation to the presidential campaigns; about what patriotism means and who comes up deficient.
But why love and celebrate the nation at all? Patriotism is a remarkably common sentiment found in every part of the world and yet an essential part of the proposition of patriotism is that “my country is special and uniquely worthy of devotion.” I don’t begrudge anyone that sentiment. I just think that in America’s case, it just happens to be true.
That’s why I think insistence on patriotism solely as a “my country right or wrong” idea tragically limits it to that most ordinary brand of patriotism that Americans are in a unique position to transcend. Patriots in each country love it just because it’s theirs. As the word “patriotism” implies, it is similar in character to the conviction that “my Dad is the greatest Dad in the world” (or “my Mom” or “my kid” or “my family” generally).
But I genuinely believe that ours is a country that can make a substantive case that it “is special and uniquely worthy of devotion.” First of all, it’s the only country in the world founded on an aspiration: “in order to form a more perfect union” — aspiration is our inheritance.
We didn’t form that union to glorify a king or some other venerable institution. We did it to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
And by the way, it’s “We the People of the United States” that formed this union. Not a king, not a church, not the memory of great empires or mythological gods, not the standard bearers of a racial or cultural heritage, despite the fact that the founders were Englishmen, clearly building on an English tradition of “freeborn” citizenry. They didn’t form a union as legatees of a shared ancestry, but as participants in a shared vision. That’s why I, an American with no genetic lineage to the founders can rightfully claim them as mine and rightfully talk about them as “we.” That’s not true anywhere else in the world.
On this anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, why am I quoting from the Constitution? Because the Constitution charts the course for making good on the promise we made to ourselves and each other in the Declaration. That promise, of course was to live in freedom, as equals, protected in our inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
And let’s remember the crowning words of that promise: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Some people will believe the very worst about others. Well, not all others, just some others….
People will believe that president Obama would euthanize their grandparents. They will believe that he “hates white people.” They will cry in public and ask for their “America back” — when to most of us America doesn’t look all that different from last year. That is, unless there really is no place in one’s America for a black president — but I don’t honestly believe that’s what that woman was thinking. Even if race played into her fears, I’m pretty sure it was subconscious.
So why is it that people are willing to believe such extreme things about Obama and the Democrats? Why are they willing to believe, not just that they have misguided ideas, but that they have such actively evil intentions? It seems incredible to me.
A friend of mine asked me an interesting question the other day. “Do you think this is how conservatives felt during the Bush years?” She wondered. “That they couldn’t figure out why so many were fearful of the administration’s policies — not just disapproving, but fearful?”
My friend, much like me, is a “liberal” in her values, without being committed to any technocratic or partisan political agenda. We are liberals because we believe in freedom and compassion and fairness. We want things like poverty and discrimination to be eradicated without necessarily being wedded to particular policy approaches. We love the founding fathers and will fight any white supremacist who tries to appropriate them for their own sick visions of “their” America. We are willing to be just as hard on the government under President Obama as we were on the one under President Bush on all the same issues: state secrets doctrine, extraordinary renditions, military tribunals, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, wall street bailouts with practically no strings attached. . . etc.
And yet, we too, are willing to accept that the Obama people aren’t dangerous in ways that maybe we weren’t always absolutely certain about the Bush people. (Although sometimes I do think Tim Geithner is the devil, but that’s a different post).
I will say this, though: the whackos on the left — the ones that used to peddle anti-Bush theories that 9/11 was an “inside job” or that the delay in responding to Katrina was a result of Bush “hating black people” — never really got traction with mainstream or influential liberals. Not one factually unproven conspiracy-type theory about the Bush administration was taken up by anyone prominent enough that I can recall his/her name. Dan Rather doesn’t count — he relied on the wrong documents but his charge, that Bush didn’t fulfill his National Guard duties, was true and substantiated; and even if he does count, that’s just ONE. On the other hand, mainstream, influential conservatives — Bill Kristol, Lou Dobbs, Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity — don’t seem to have any qualms about giving credence to complete fabrications about “death panels” and “Kenyan citizenship.”
I will also say this: for all the conservative accusations of inadequate liberal respect for our erstwhile “commander-in-chief” — no liberal ever actively wanted President Bush to fail as a president. We just wanted him to be a better president. Rush Limbaugh actually said he wanted Obama to fail (and Fred Thompson and Bobby Jindal defended him in this). Can you imagine the Fox News response if someone had said that about Bush? Despite the conservative alarm at liberals not caring about the security of our country, it was a conservative that wanted Osama bin Laden to attack our country.
I will say this, too: I wouldn’t have any reason to be paranoid about President Bush if he didn’t actually lie to us about the reason we went to war with Iraq; if he didn’t try to usurp legislative power with elaborate “signing statements”; if he didn’t have guys like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Gonzalez, Bybee, and Yoo working for him (I know, I know, Tim Geithner. . . but he’s kind of a lesser devil, like Phil, The Prince of Insufficient Light).
Nevertheless, I think my friend has a point. What we tend to see as “flawed” rather than “evil” may often be a product of our own invention, at least in part, and this might apply to even the least partisan, most fair-minded and judicious among us. That’s bad enough, but what’s really scary is that so very many of us these days are deliberately, and gleefully partisan with absolutely no intention of being fair-minded or judicious.Maybe it’s “their” turn to be paranoid. So much for the post-political neo-camelot.
Twenty years ago tomorrow, Hungary began taking down the barbed wire partition between itself and Austria. It wasn’t attended by all the fanfare of the fall of the Berlin Wall a few months later. But it was a quietly heroic start of that gloriously literal, physical dismantling of the Iron Curtain.
We in America like to celebrate it as a matter of national triumph. That feeling is warranted only in the sense that our ideals of democracy and open societies had prevailed. But when we do the revisionist victory dance and buy into the popular cowboy narrative of how we strong-armed the Soviets to surrender, we do a great disservice to history and the truth and ourselves.
First of all, that attitude diminishes the role of the people living inside the countries behind the curtain, who essentially rose up to overthrow their own oppressive governments (many of these, like Solidarity in Poland were labor activists, a fact that gloating neocons like to sweep under the rug). The truth is, communism failed as an economic structure and authoritarianism failed as a governing principle. They were no longer tenable propositions and historical forces brewing for many years imploded the system from within, in some cases violently (Rumania). As Karl Marx might have recognized if he had actually lived through the era of communism, it was a historical inevitability.
Secondly, keeping alive the fantasy that we defeated the communists through force, denigrates the role of our values – democracy, freedom, and equality – that formed the real impetus for the fall of communism. We were the shining example of a life they wanted. As George Shultz said (criticizing the Jackson-Bannick Act), “telling our friends. . . we are forcing you to do [something] doesn’t work.” What does work, according to him, is to let them see that what we are asking for works to their own benefit.
Most ironically, believing the cowboy myth does a grave disservice to the Cowboy himself. When I emphasize that our values and our example helped end the Cold War, I don’t mean to suggest our foreign policy didn’t. But it wasn’t our tough-talking, deficit-exploding-defense-spending policy that did the trick. It was our diplomacy.
Ronald Reagan’s contribution in this was significant, though not singular. But the key to his foreign policy success (contrary to every self-styled Reaganite who gives The Gipper practically the entire credit for “ending communism”), was not his unrelenting “show of strength.” It was the opposite of that. (Remember that Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had all been as hawkish and as much the anti-communist crusaders that Reagan was, but they all failed. Remember also that the Cold War was not so much “won” as thawed.)
The reason Reagan was able to make any headway was, along with the historical realities I mentioned earlier (and the good fortune to be dealing with Gorbachev, instead of the likes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev) was really his flexibility. He was willing to engage in “constructive dialog,” as Gorbachev explained.
Last week, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Shultz were on Charlie Rose. They talked about the truly successful aspect of Reagan’s legacy, one that his most vocal disciples NEVER mention, which is one of peacemaking. He came to realize that cooperation works better than bullying. Gorbachev said he witnessed Reagan evolve from a hardliner to a peacemaker. Shultz noted the same evolution of Gorbachev.
Reagan and his foreign policy team took a lot of heat from their hawkish domestic constituency (and some allies) for promoting a ballistic missile ban, and a general, progressive, nuclear weapons reduction plan with the goal of eventual disarmament. Shultz said Margaret Thatcher hit him with her purse over the disarmament proposal at Reykjavík (although I think that may well have been because she wasn’t invited to the Summit).
What Thatcher didn’t get – and her neocon fans in America still don’t get– is that Reagan got somewhere becausehe met his adversary halfway. Gorbachev recalled a meeting early in their relationship, when he essentially told the president “I’m not your student; if you don’t stop lecturing me, this conversation is over.” Reagan realized being conciliatory (a dirty word to today’s conservatives) might be a better strategy. Unlike our last Republican president, who never liked to admit errors, Reagan actually rescinded the “evil empire” statement. He told a Soviet journalist “I believed it at the time I said it, but I don’t anymore.” How refreshing!
We don’t generally think of Reagan in those terms (because conservatives like to pretend his success validates a diehard conservatism that it really doesn’t and liberals like to disregard his redeeming qualities because they dislike so much else about him). But Reagan, at his best, did listen to people, and correct himself, and compromise. In fact, his compromises on weapons discussions helped him to negotiate his human rights agenda. There’s something else people don’t seem to remember about Reagan: he cared about human rights! Certainly I (as a shameless liberal) care about a whole of host of human rights issues that Reagan was indifferent to, but one has to respect the fact that the rights that he did care about – like religious freedom – seemed to be important to him in substance, and not merely as lip service to win elections and to justify invasions. Gorbachev remembered that Reagan tried to coax him to talk about the Jewish emigration issue, at EVERY meeting! Shultz recalled a quiet deal worked out between the two leaders whereby the USSR would permit a Pentecostal community to emigrate if the US promised not to “crow” about it.
In America, we take a lot of pleasure in thinking of President Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech as pivotal in communism’s decline. In reality, of course, it was just a great sound bite, like “audacity of hope” – inspirational, to be sure, and I never fail to feel a certain spine-tingling whenever I see archive footage of it. But was it really “pivotal”… in a concrete, history-altering sense? Come on! It wasn’t like he was sending us off to battle in Gettysburg.
Gorbachev, who remembers Reagan with great admiration and affection, chuckled at the suggestion that changes in the Soviet foreign policy posture was at all influenced by that speech. “This did not really impress us, as it did you,” he admitted. But he gave Reagan a great deal of credit for the actual work of diplomacy that did influence changes.
There was one more factor to which we do more than a little injustice by claiming Reagan as a latter-day Lincoln, single-handedly liberating the bulk of Eurasia from totalitarian serfdom. I speak, of course, of Mikhail Gorbachev.
First, the warming of international relations was led jointly by the Reagan-Gorbachev team. More importantly, international relations played a small part of the actual fall of the Soviet empire as compared to the internal pressures, as I mentioned before. And Gorbachev must get much of the credit for the way he dealt with that. Although I give the people of Eastern Europe more credit for their own liberation than any politician, it’s obvious that in the Soviet Union itself, Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost programs definitely catalyzed the process by liberalizing Soviet society from within. (Ironically, he was trying to save communism by rescuing it from totalitarianism, but it turned out totalitarianism was pretty much the only thing holding it in place!)
Gorbachev says that he was “defeated” in his political career, but, in the final analysis, the liberalization policies he put in place proved successful in principle. I’d say!
I’d also say that the end of the Cold War, Communism, and the Iron Curtain are all related, but they are not the same thing. The Cold War was an arms-race between us and the Soviets. Communism was the economic system of the Easter Bloc. The Iron Curtain was the opaque and tyrannical political conditions within the Bloc. If you look at our interactions in the world today, and indeed our other interactions during the late Cold War years, all these factors aren’t always necessarily related.
Watching Gorby and Shultz chew the fat with Charlie made for one riveting hour. Twenty plus years later, all their nerve-trying diplomatic calculations, all the guarded communications through a political minefield that could prove, at any moment, to become an actual minefield on a planetary scale. . . transmuted into reminiscences of the kind that you might have with an old college debating rival over a decent Beaujolais.
There is a scene in Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” in which a couple of old soldiers – one Union, one Confederate – are talking about the “old days” like brothers in arms. It was like that: surreal and yet exactly right.
January 26 is “Republic Day” in India. It’s the day their constitution was ratified and it is celebrated with almost as much fanfare as the day they got their independence from Britain. People — some people — volunteer to register voters in remote villages. Kids enter essay contests. In Calcutta they have cookouts (it’s actually mild enough in January to do that!) and, of course they blast the Bollywood songs on loudspeakers.
Why don’t we do this for our constitution (Bollywood songs optional, of course)?
Come to think of it, why don’t we READ our constitution? Every middle school teacher and parent should require their kids to read it and write an essay about it.
Instead of Grand Theft Auto (or whatever the kids are playing now), why don’t we give them copies of the constitution for their 10th birthday? Am I saying that only because I am not a parent and I just don’t know what misfortune would befall me if I did that?
Maybe, but it could be, if nothing else, the perfect lesson in the idea of Sovereignty. Tell your kids that without the republican system, they would live in a world where the powers that be decided what they played, read, ate. . . .
It’s weird to be abroad this week. I must admit, I am missing the around the clock coverage American media must be giving to the transition in Washington. Of course, the whole world is watching – and I’m thankful for the unique perspective I’m getting (especially since I’m in a country where the Bush administration was not universally detested – more about that later). But the media here (including the regional BBC and CNN outlets) have many other priorities, naturally.
Incidentally, I am not currently able to get constant access to NPR and PBS online here as I’d planned to do when I came to India. My broadband connection has been spotty and is completely out this week. I’ve been going to an “internet café” to get online. It’s not the most convenient way to do things, but a great way to feel a part of local culture, which is a surprisingly different experience from being a part of a local family (which I am).
I met some twenty-somethings who are in a band called the “Hool” (it means something like a needle or pin prick) – they have an exciting sound too, and not free from the New-New Wave craze sweeping their generation (and making mine nostalgic).
These boys are (as creative youth everywhere tend to be) politically left leaning, but fond of America and Americans for our ideals of freedom and individual rights and respect for the rights of others – especially the equality of rights. These are the things people the world over tend naturally to ascribe to America’s essence, as strange as we ourselves may sometimes find it (either because we can’t separate it from the disapprobation we face from non-Americans when we abandon our own ideals and behave like tyrants or because we have bought into a craven view of American values as beginning and ending with the pursuit of material gain).
Members of Hool know an awful lot about American history – which impressed me. I know kids their age back home who know nothing about Indian history (or American history, for that matter). And these are ordinary middle class kids, going to public schools in what is still a relatively poor country, who don’t have internet access at home!
I could analyze the socio-political causes of this difference. I could lay out some policy direction for improving global and historical awareness among our youth. But you know what? I don’t feel like it. I just feel like savoring the feeling that there are people in the world, even among people far worse off than we are, who manage to know more than we do (if you’re comparing knowledge per unit of opportunity among similarly aged people) who nevertheless admire us. Openly admire us for all the right reasons.
I want to take a moment to congratulate The Mac. What a wonderfully gracious, unifying, and patriotic concession. I loved that he recognized, explicitly, the wounds of the past and the salve of progress that has been a hallmark of the extraordinary history of this most extraordinary country. He also recognized the importance of the civic engagement that Obama’s remarkable campaign has inspired.
“Let there be no reason now,” he said, “for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on earth.”
I have often thought Michelle Obama’s “first time in my adult life” comment was understandable, if unfortunate. Throughout our country’s turbulent racial history, African Americans have had to look for sources of pride in their country, and often that has had to be aspirational, sometimes with ambivalent results. I have always been surprised at the willingness of many to condemn this internal struggle of African Americans, demanding that their patriotism be as reflexive as it is for the rest of us, being descendants of those who came freely to America (I realize that as an individual, Obama’s ancestors also came freely, but I’m talking about the psychological impact of his racial identity on all African Americans).
Tonight, I agree with the sentiment expressed by John McCain. I urge all Americans to be proud of their beautiful country. I say to them: don’t be too cautious about your celebration of what this means. While it was African Americans (or perhaps minorities generally) that McCain had in mind, I urge white Americans to shed their guilt and ignore any temptation there may be tonight to fight the catharsis they are feeling. I know catharsis can sometimes be a hindrance to practical progress. Those of us who live by constant self analysis sometimes make the mistake of employing Brechtian alienation strategy to deal with our emotional impulses in important moments.
But this particular catharsis is long overdue. Enjoy it.
Just as formal emancipation did not automtically bring de facto freedom to all the slaves, the election of a biracial man to our highest office doesn’t eradicate racial hatred, but it most certainly shatters the presumption of racial suspicion. I think this election has earned us the right and the freedom to deal with race openly, honestly, and respectfully. I hope we finally are unshackled from the culture where every discussion about race is fraught with unspoken judgments and fears. Judgments of racism and fear of knee-jerk accusations of racial animus.
Given our history of racial tensions, given the attempt of some to raise questions about Obama’s trustworthiness based (openly or obliquely) on his race, given that African Americans comprise a small minority of the American electorate, this election certainly shows, in the most concrete way, that America is a country where Martin Luther King’s dream — that one day we will judge each other by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin — can be realized.
Tonight has seen nothing short of the restoration of the American spirit. That’s a little sappy, I know. But on many, many fronts, the election of Obama is the turning of a new page; a better page. We have elected by a landslide, this unflinchingly dignified person who has insisted on unity and respect.
People have compared Obama’s moment in history with Kennedy and Reagan. I think that’s fair. But I think this is different — and better– in important ways. Kennedy inspired a lot of people, but he was elected by a very narrow margin, and had Herbert Hoover not pressed Nixon to concede, 1960 would have dragged on the way 2000 had. The fact that Obama was elected by such overwhelming numbers, gives me confidence that a lot of this excitement can and will translate into genuine cooperation and progress.
While Reagan inspired a lot of people and won by a landslide, his response to the people’s endorsement did not have the humility that Obama has shown. Reagan highlighted the triumph of his party’s point of view, whereas Obama praised Republicans, not just as people and patriots, but he specifically praised their values and promised to work with them on figuring out the directions in which we take our country in the months to come.
I know people who distrust Obama’s “unity” campaign. Some of my conservative friends point out that Obama is pretty clearly an ideological progressive and they wonder on what basis we should accept his post-partisan promises.
That’s where style comes in. In sharp contrast to a recent president who swaggered as he expressed his intention to spend his newly gained political capital because “that’s my style,” this new president-elect assured those who didn’t vote for him that he will be their president as well. He promised to listen. Most hearteningly for me, he promised to listen “especially when we disagree.”
I personally think he means it. He always has been a coalition builder. Even as a young man, serving as president of the Harvard Law Review, he confounded his fellow liberals’ expectations by including more conservatives than progressives on the editorial staff. Republicans, even free-marketers who deeply disagree with him on policy issues, have put their faith in him in significant numbers. I know people who think this kind of cross-ideological support is simply irrational. I think what they don’t understand is that people support this guy because they can work with him. Because the way he has conducted his life so far clearly shows his willingness to listen to and learn from and work with those who disagree with him. They trust his good faith in this respect. After eight years of stubborn arrogance, Americans of all points of view are ready for a little good faith and humility in their public-servant-in-chief.
As I got into a cab on my way home from the election-party, midtown Manhattan was bursting with joy, and the Egyptian-born driver who has just become a citizen and voted for the first time, smiled at the flag draped around my neck and said “it’s a beautiful night to be an American.”
It was a beautiful, overcast morning outside of Robert F. Kennedy elementary school in Jersey City. The lines were long. The faces were friendly. I exchanged a nod with a cute, readheaded guy, whose glasses fogged up from the steam rising out of his Starbucks cup as he leaned his face down toward his torso and took off his McCain/Palin ’08 button and placed it inside his pocket before entering the school compound.
I left my flag pin on.
“Turnout looks good” he said. “Yes, it’s great!” I replied.
I don’t claim to be able to read his thoughts, but in the finest American tradition, I give people the benefit of the doubt and trust their genuineness until they prove me wrong — no matter how many before them have proven me wrong.
He’s a patriot, I concluded. His candidate might fare poorly by a high turnout in our precinct, but he celebrates the civic triumph of that turnout nonetheless.
In the American imagination it has almost become trite to say that one admires Martin Luther King Jr. – it’s like loving Mozart or Shakespeare (or, if you share my Bengali-Indian heritage, Rabindranath Tagore) – it goes without saying and is almost second-nature and ceases to feel significant or impressive.
But listen again, and you’ll remember why.
I read Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail when I was a kid. I think it was an anniversary of his assassination. I read it in a book of his writings my Dad gave me. At the time, I had been reading the history of the American Revolution and the Constitution, so, unsurprisingly, one of the themes that stuck with me was King’s characterization of the civil rights movement and its aim, as not so much a revolution as the fulfillment of the American promise.
On the one hand he pointed out that “abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation, and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.”
Yet he also wrote, “when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were …bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
The destinies are “tied up” together with America, not just because of historical circumstance, but because it had been the American values — and mechanism for implementing those values, set up in its founding documents by people who took freedom and equality seriously in principle, however imperfectly they practiced it — that presented the greatest chance of overcoming the original wrongs. Overcoming, it’s important to note, is not the same as avenging.
As a kid I was enthralled by the American promise, while acutely aware that many Americans – perhaps most – didn’t even consider me a “real” American, what with my brown skin and my accented parents. I was the kid whom everyone asked “where are you from?” even though I was born five miles away in the George Washington University Hospital in the nation’s capital. I was the kid who was assumed, whenever I had an unusual idea (and I had plenty), to be speaking, not from my own individual imagination, but from an alien cultural source. I was the kid whose teacher responded, when I told her how moved I was with Dr. King’s writing, “yes, he’s very much like Mahatma Gandhi in your country. In fact, did you know he was inspired by Gandhi? I can give you a bibliography of his writings about Gandhi if you want.”
I know lots of people who responded that way to me, usually without consciously thinking about it. I’ve met people like that all my life. Yet, I loved America. I love it still. I love being an American and what that means at its core. Whatever others may think, I know “America” is mine. Because I know history is not inherited piecemeal by genetic lineage. I know that I am heir to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King. Their legacy is mine because I have chosen it.
And that’s what America is. It is a choice. It is a legacy of choice. America is the one place in the world where it is taken for granted that you can belong here by choice, not just birth. At least this is the one place where the opposite proposition is the controversial one.
Martin Luther King reminded me that there are those who have a heritage of things much, much worse than my mild cultural identity crisis. People who have strong and righteous historical reasons to reject America, or even hate it. But even they love the promise of America. In fact, they root their struggle in that promise. They embrace the “America” we set out to become and are always in the process of becoming.
When people flex their muscles in a show of “American” patriotism that reduces us to parochial idiosyncrasies and perhaps narrow religious or social preferences, I remind myself, that’s not “America” any more than my elbow (or the callus on my heel) is “Koli Mitra.”
For all the grievous wrongs we may be guilty of as a nation, we are also the nation founded in the purest of struggles to overcome those elements in our nature that commit those wrongs.