Some of my friends on the left are critical of the recent Democratic National Convention. They say that it was overloaded with patriotic symbolism. There was too much talk about military heroism and not enough political and programmatic substance. Even the Vietnam War was treated as a heroic event, even though, from the perspective of most Democratic delegates, it was just as wrong as the current Iraqi adventure. And candidate Kerry, wrapped in the flag of military heroism, seemed to have forgotten that his political fame also wrests on his heroic role as a Vietnam veteran who became a leader of the anti-war opposition.
The Republicans, for their part, criticize the convention for what they saw as its phony patriotism. Kerry, they charge, is a liberal; hence ineligible to be considered patriotic. Besides, he served only four months in Vietnam. His medals for heroism were not earned; nor were his three purple hearts. The GOP implies that Kerry, even as a young Swift-boat commander, was plotting his run for President. He therefore must have connived with his higher-ups to receive the medals.
And so the uncivil war over who's more patriotic continues, more heated than ever. For the first time in memory, the Democrats are playing "Capture the Flag" and challenging the Republican conceit of being the "patriotic party."
But over-the-top patriotic displays are, in part, innocent rituals, a product of our country's unique history. The United States began as the united (as an adjective) States. At a time when people traveled by horse or on foot and it took days before news made it from Washington to one's local community, being an American was an abstract idea. It was with their town, city or state that people identified. The idea of one country made up of many states had to be asserted boldly, with strident rhetoric, flags and bunting. This tradition has held; it used to be fun, even if hokey.
Moreover, as a nation of immigrants we feel compelled to publicly identify with our new country. Each new generation, responding to peer and institutional pressure, feels a necessity to proclaim its allegiance. But there is authenticity in this: the gratitude immigrants feel for freedom and opportunity.
There are, however, good reasons for liberals and leftists to recoil from patriotic sentiment. "Patriotism," it's been said, is "the last resort of scoundrels." And so it's been for more than 50 years, as the right wing, once aligned with the Democratic Party, has opportunistically misused "patriotism" as an ideological weapon.
During the McCarthy Era, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a congressional committee of racists, anti-Semites, and assorted other right-wing demagogues, used the excuse of "fighting communism" to harass civil rights, peace, union and other liberal and left-wing activists. The comedian Mort Sahl used to joke about the Cold War competition that every time the Soviets threw an American in jail, HUAC would retaliate by trying to throw another American in jail. Fortunately, the courts upheld the Bill of Rights and HUAC was thwarted. But damage was done. In the eyes of HUAC and its supporters, promoting liberal ideas was ipso facto "un-American." The current Republican effort to turn "liberal" into a four-letter word has its roots in the "un-American activities" committee.
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Then came Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous decision outlawing racially-segregated schools. White supremacists responded by endeavoring to murder civil rights leaders and boycotting, closing and even firebombing newly integrated public schools. Everyone who grew up in the 1950s recalls images of Klan terrorists wrapping themselves in the American flag while insisting that the civil rights movement was a "communist conspiracy." HUAC, of course, never investigated the "un-American activities" of white supremacists. Indeed, many state governments, as well as FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, protected racist organizations. The association of racism with patriotism ultimately gave "patriotism" a tarnished image.
In the nineteen sixties and seventies, proponents of the Vietnam War, unable to defend the war on its merits, contemptuously misused patriotic symbols to portray the anti-war movement as un-American. As a result, many war protestors came to further distrust overt displays of patriotic sentiment.
I've got a theory about patriotic attitudes. Those who became politically conscious during and shortly after the Second World War tend to be more comfortable with patriotic expression. Those who came of age during the McCarthy or Vietnam Era tend to see patriotism as cynically and ideologically motivated.
The great World War II demobilization parades I'm old enough to have witnessed in the Bronx are indelible in my political consciousness. I was a little kid waving a flag and saluting the color guard as the returning troops marched down the Grand Concourse. Protesting the Vietnam War was, for me, an uncomfortable experience. I hadn't before considered that there could be a difference between the government and my country, between patriotism and policy. Being attacked by drunken goons waving an American flag made learning that lesson easier.
In the political realignment that resulted from the Democrat's embrace of the civil rights movement, the racist right wing migrated to the Republican Party. And the GOP adopted the tactic of misusing patriotism for political purposes. And it's no wonder! It is easier to question the patriotism of liberal Democrats than it is to defend Republican policies that overwhelmingly favor privilege and wealth at the expense of the great majority of Americans.
Finally, the Democrats are fighting back. In a decent political culture, patriotism would not be a cutting-edge issue. We would all respect the good intentions of our political opponents and campaigns would be based on programmatic substance and policy issues.
But that's not possible in the current political climate. And so Democrats have to play "Capture the Flag." I don't like it but I understand it. I look forward to the day when patriotism is no longer used as a partisan issue, polluting our democracy by pitting Americans against Americans.