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Give Us Back Our Damn Flag 

The leftist case for patriotism

Thursday, Jul 1 2004
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Page 3 of 3

 

One bright sunny morning in the
shadow of the steeple

By the relief office I saw my people.

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As they stood hungry I stood there wondering

If this land was made for you and me.

 

Stimulated by the recent nostalgia for World War II, old recordings by left-wing performers of the 1940s Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers, Josh White, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and Paul Robeson are, fortunately, undergoing a revival. This was material deliberately created to promote the war effort, expressing the passionate fervor of left-wing resistance to fascism. The best songs also express the conviction that the fight against fascism must encompass a struggle to end Jim Crow and achieve economic democracy at home. Indeed, President Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches during that period reflect many of the same themes and images. And if you add to these songs the scripts of numbers of Hollywood war movies and radio plays by some of America’s leading writers — some of whom were later blacklisted — it becomes clear that popular culture in support of that war was largely the creation of American leftists.

Even during the 1960s, American progressives continued to seek ways to fuse their love of country with their opposition to the government’s policies. The March on Washington in 1963 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted the words to “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” repeating the phrase “Let freedom ring” 11 times.

Phil Ochs, then part of a new generation of politically conscious singer-songwriters who emerged during the 1960s, wrote an anthem in the Guthrie vein, “The Power and the Glory,” that coupled love of country with a strong plea for justice and equality. The words to the chorus echo the sentiments of the anti–Vietnam War movement:

Here is a land full of power and glory;

Beauty that words cannot recall;

Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom

Her glory shall rest on us all.

 

One of its stanzas updated Guthrie’s combination of outrage and patriotism:

 

Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor;

Only as free as the padlocked prison door;

Only as strong as our love for this land;

Only as tall as we stand.

Interestingly, this song later became part of the repertoire of the U.S. Army band.

And in 1968, in a famous anti-war speech on the steps of the Capitol, Norman Thomas, the aging leader of the Socialist Party, proclaimed, “I come to cleanse the American flag, not burn it.”

 

In recent decades, Bruce Springsteen has most closely followed in the Guthrie tradition. From “Born in the USA,” to his songs about Tom Joad (the militant protagonist in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), to his anthem about the September 11 tragedy (“Empty Sky”), Springsteen has championed the downtrodden while challenging America to live up to its ideals.

Steve (“Little Stevie”) Van Zandt is best known as the guitarist with Springsteen’s E Street Band and, most recently, for his role as Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s sidekick on The Sopranos. But his most enduring legacy should be his love song about America, “I Am a Patriot,” including these lyrics:

 

I am a patriot, and I love my country, Because my country is all I know. Wanna be with my family, People who understand me. I got no place else to go.

And I ain’t no communist, And I ain’t no socialist, And I ain’t no capitalist, And I ain’t no imperialist, And I ain’t no Democrat, Sure ain’t no Republican either, I only know one party, And that is freedom.

 

In the midst of a controversial and increasingly unpopular war, and with a presidential election under way that will shape the nation’s direction, there is no better way to celebrate America than to listen to Van Zandt’s patriotic anthem. And while doing so, maybe waving a flag and remembering it’s also yours.

 

Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College and is co-author of The Next L.A.: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press). Dick Flacks teaches sociology at UC Santa Barbara and is the author of Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (Columbia University Press).

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