By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Illustration by Winston Smith|
Since 9/11, patriotic expressions in public life have dramatically soared. We see displays of the Stars and Stripes on cars, businesses, T-shirts, caps, lapel pins and even tattoos, along with bales of CDs with patriotic songs. During periods of social and political turmoil, America’s leaders have always sought to impose rituals of loyalty, civics lessons and other forms of patriotic observance. In that tradition, George W. Bush has tried to define opposition to his war policy as unpatriotic. His first response to 9/11 included the declaration that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” a comment aimed not only at leaders of other nations but at domestic critics as well. (The misnamed Patriot Act was clearly designed to stigmatize dissent.) And the buildup to the Iraq invasion was framed by endless miles of star-spangled bunting and the continuous looping of “God Bless America.”
This post-9/11 patriotic fervor has revitalized the conventional wisdom that love of country is synonymous with conservatism. Conservatives, we are told, wave the flag. Or wear it on their lapels. Leftists, by contrast, only scorn it. Or burn it. Since the Vietnam War era, many liberals and progressives have been uncomfortable about patriotism. They equate it with jingoism and militarism. They have been reluctant to wave the flag. They weren’t sure it was theirs. And George W. Bush’s brand of blind “my country right or wrong” jingoism has, on this Fourth of July, only deepened the dilemma.
But some progressives are now challenging this conventional reflex, no longer conceding that conservatives have a monopoly on Old Glory. During the weeks before Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the anti-war movement countered with bumper stickers illustrated with an American flag that proclaimed, “Peace Is Patriotic.” Since then, demonstrations against the invasion and occupation of Iraq have been festooned with American flags. The Veterans for Peace are doing more than any official body to publicly honor those who have given their lives in combat, creating symbolic Arlington cemeteries with crosses marking the war dead in a growing number of cities.
“Take Back Our Country,” a line used by Pat Buchanan when he declared a cultural war at the 1992 Republican Convention, has now become a rallying cry for liberals. John Kerry has been appropriating the key line from Langston Hughes’ Depression-era poem “Let America Be America Again” as a campaign slogan.
Indeed, throughout the nation’s history, many American radicals and progressive reformers proudly asserted their patriotism. To them, America stood for basic democratic values — economic and social equality, mass participation in politics, free speech and civil liberties, elimination of the second-class citizenship of women and racial minorities, a welcome mat for the world’s oppressed people. The reality of corporate power, right-wing xenophobia, and social injustice only fueled progressives’ allegiance to these principles and the struggle to achieve them.
Nevertheless, progressives are faced with the tough question of what exactly it means to be patriotic in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world. Multinational corporations based in the U.S. obviously have no loyalty to this country. They do their best to outsource jobs to low-wage countries and to avoid paying taxes. (Ironically, most American flags are made in China, and Wal-Mart, whose founder, Sam Walton, promoted the motto “Buy American,” now imports 60 percent of its merchandise and accounts for about 12 percent of all U.S. imports from China, most of it made under sweatshop conditions.)
But the slogan “Buy American,” which sounds patriotic to some and protectionist to others, isn’t much help if you’re a progressive hoping to shop with a conscience. Most apparel produced in the U.S. is made under awful sweatshop conditions by companies that exploit immigrants and violate minimum-wage and other labor laws. Even the Department of Defense buys some of its uniforms from companies that operate sweatshops.
Progressives show their patriotism today by looking for a union label in their American-made clothes, or they can look for a “fair trade” label on various consumer goods made overseas. (Help is available from several nonprofit groups: www.fair
tradefederation.com; www.transfairusa.org; www.nosweat
apparel.com; and www.unionlabel.org.) The American activists who’ve protested at World Trade Organization and World Bank meetings to demand better living standards for Third World workers aren’t simply do-gooders. When workers in China or Mexico get paid a living wage, American companies have less incentive to move jobs from U.S. soil, and those workers have more money to buy U.S.-made products.
But let’s get back to the Red-White-and-Blue. The flag, as a symbol of the nation, is not owned by the administration in power, but by the people. We battle over what it means, but all Americans — across the political spectrum — have an equal right to claim the flag as their own.
Most Americans are unaware that much of our patriotic culture — including many of the leading symbols and songs that have become increasingly popular since September 11 — was created by writers of decidedly progressive sympathies.
For example, the Pledge of Allegiance itself was originally authored and promoted by a leading Christian socialist, Francis Bellamy (cousin of best-selling radical writer Edward Bellamy), who was fired from his Boston ministry for his sermons depicting Jesus as a socialist. Bellamy penned the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America by promoting use of the flag in public schools. He hoped the pledge would promote a moral vision to counter the climate of the Gilded Age, with its robber barons and exploitation of workers. Bellamy intended the line “One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all” to express a more collective and egalitarian vision of America.