When the flags fly proudly on the Fourth of July, I always remember what my late father taught me about love of country. He was a deeply patriotic man, much as he despised the scoundrels and pretenders he liked to mock as “jelly-bellied flag flappers.” It is a phrase from a Rudyard Kipling story that aptly describes the belligerent chicken-hawk who never stops squawking – someone like Dick Cheney or Rush Limbaugh.
Like many who volunteered for the U.S. Army in World War II, my dad never spoke much about his four tough years of military service, which brought him under Japanese bombardment in the Pacific theatre. But eventually there came a time when he attached to his lapel a small, eagle-shaped pin, known as a “ruptured duck” – a memento given to every veteran. With this proof of service, he demonstrated that as a lifelong liberal, he loved his country as much as any conservative.
Would such a gesture resonate today? Right-wingers have long sought to establish a monopoly on patriotic expression. On this holiday, when we celebrate the nation’s revolutionary founding, we need to remind ourselves just how hollow that right-wing tactic is and always has been. Only our historical amnesia permits the right — infested with neo-Confederates and other dubious types — to assert an exclusive franchise on the flag, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the whole panoply of national symbols. In the light of history, it should be plain that progressives are fully entitled to a share of America’s heritage; indeed, perhaps even more than their right-wing rivals.
Let’s begin at the official beginning. Although “right” and “left” didn’t define political combat at that time on these shores, there isn’t much doubt that behind the American Revolution, and in particular the Declaration of Independence, was not only a colonial elite but a cabal of left-wing radicals as well.
How else to describe Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, the revolutionary idealists who declared their contempt for monarchy and aristocracy? It is true that many of their wealthier and more cautious comrades in the Continental Congress disdained Adams as a reckless adventurer “of bankrupt fortune,” and Paine as a rabble-rousing scribbler. Of course popular democracy was a wildly radical doctrine in colonial times, only tamed in the writing of the Constitution by the new nation’s land-owning elites and slaveholders.
The right-wingers of that era were the Tories — colonists who remained loyal to the British crown, opposed to change, and, in their assistance to George III’s occupying army, exactly the opposite of patriots. Only after two centuries of ideological shifting can Tea Party “constitutionalists” claim that the republican faith of the Founding Fathers is “conservative.”
The Civil War was just as plainly a struggle between left and right, between patriots and … well, in those days the Confederate leaders were deemed traitors (a term avoided since then out of a decent concern for Southern sensibilities). Academics dispute the war’s economic and social basis, but there is no doubt that the 19th-century left sought to abolish slavery and preserve the Union, while its right-wing contemporaries fought to extend slavery and destroy the Union.
Reverence for the Confederacy remains an emotional touchstone for right-wing Southern politicians and intellectuals (not to mention the Ku Klux Klan, assorted neo-Nazis, and many activists in the Tea Party). All of these disreputable elements denigrate Lincoln, our greatest president, and promote nostalgia for the plantation, sometimes known as “the Southern way of life.” The latest example is Chris McDaniel, the defeated Tea Party candidate for the Senate in Mississippi, a flag-waver if ever there was one – except when he was delivering fiery speeches to the secessionist Sons of Confederate Veterans. At the risk of offending every “conservative” who runs around with a Stars and Bars bumper sticker, it is hard to see how his conduct qualifies as American patriotism.
Still another inglorious episode in the annals of the right preceded World War II. The “America First” movement that opposed U.S. intervention against Hitler camouflaged itself with red, white and blue but proved to be a haven for foreign agents who were plotting against the United States. (Philip Roth brilliantly depicted this sinister campaign in The Plot Against America.)
Although Communists and pacifists had opposed American entry into the war for their own reasons, the broad-based left of the New Deal coalition understood the threat from the Axis very early. After Pearl Harbor most conservatives honorably joined the war effort, but some continued to promote defeatism and appeasement. And the historical roots of postwar conservatism — the “Old Right” of Joseph McCarthy and Pat Buchanan, the Buckley family and yes, the Koch brothers — can be traced to those prewar Nazi sympathizers.
What does true patriotism mean today? Do you truly love your country if you are a corporate leader hiding billions of dollars in profits offshore or insisting on the declining wages that have ruined the American dream? Do you love your country if you demand the right to pollute its air and water and despoil its countryside, no matter the cost to future generations? Do you love your country when you scheme to deprive your fellow citizens of the right to vote, which so many died to preserve?
Somehow the wingers righteously wrap themselves in Old Glory, as if our heritage belongs to them alone. On this holiday, and every other day, it surely does not.
Photo: Mike Mozart via Flickr
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