For every American who venerates the ideals set down by this country’s founders in the Declaration of Independence, July 4 is a day of reflection as well as celebration. For me, this holiday has also become an occasion to point out that liberals and progressives cherish those principles, along with the symbols that represent them, just as fervently as our conservative compatriots.
So over the past several years, I’ve written an annual Independence Day column examining the politics of patriotism – and exploding the myths behind the right-wing monopoly on patriotic expression like so many festive firecrackers.
Looking back over American history, it isn’t difficult to argue that the Sons (and daughters!) of Liberty were the progressives of their era, fighting to end monarchy and aristocracy, in bitter conflict with Tory conservatism. Nor is it hard to show that the abolitionists whose movement sparked the Civil War were the progressives of their time, battling the revanchist conservatism of the Confederacy. Or that the liberals of the New Deal era, struggling to save the world from fascism, confronted entrenched resistance from prominent rightist and corporate leaders — sometimes in league with the nation’s foreign enemies — whose heirs later founded the modern conservative movement.
In all those historic turning points is embedded a fundamental truth, that the right’s claim to patriotic exclusivity is and always was ludicrous. Repeating that every year is a necessary corrective as the wingnuts wrap themselves in Old Glory, pretending once more to be its sole owners.
But July 4, 2015 is a little different.
Following the massacre of nine innocent citizens by a thug named Dylann Roof at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, the national discourse has turned toward an important issue raised annually in those July 4 columns. At long last, the Confederate battle flag, a banner of racism, segregation, secession, and yes, treason, may be removed from public display in state Capitols across the South – because Roof waved that flag while stomping and burning ours in the pictures posted on his website. A long overdue movement toward that flag’s interment in museums, where it belongs with all the other regalia of the old slave regime, has won support from the same kind of politicians who once enabled its disgraceful flaunting.
In South Carolina, Republican governor Nikki Haley, recognizing the imperative of this moment, stood with Democrats and African-American leaders as she called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds. According to the Associated Press, she can expect enough legislators in her party to vote for that change. In Mississippi, Republican legislative leaders are calling for the Confederate symbol to be struck from their state flag. Jeb Bush, who removed the Confederate flag from public display when he was governor of Florida, finally spoke up in support of Haley’s initiative. So did Mitt Romney. Walmart, a company based in Arkansas, has announced that it will no longer market items bearing that emblem.
And those Republicans have spoken up despite polls showing that most members of their party, especially in the GOP’s Southern heartland, still condone the display of Confederate symbols. Southern chapters of the Tea Party cling to the Stars and Bars, while ventilating the usual swill about “states’ rights” and the Constitution. They have closed ranks with the fascist right, including the usual suspects in neo-Nazi cells, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose racist propaganda inspired Dylann Roof.
Obviously the Tea Party’s self-proclaimed super-patriots lack enough wit to notice the embarrassing irony of their position. It is not possible – indeed, it was never possible, as Robert E. Lee and other honorable Confederate veterans swiftly acknowledged – for anyone loyal to this country to salute that standard or any of its variations. And it is troubling that most of the Republican Party’s presidential candidates cannot yet find the courage and decency – the patriotic morale – to stop pretending otherwise.
On this day, however, in Lincoln’s own spirit of charity toward all and malice toward none, we ought to embrace those Republicans who have reaffirmed their loyalty to the flag that represents all of us. Today we should stand together — as President Obama suggested in his remarkable eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Mother Emanuel — to honor the flag that flies over the “United States of America.”