“Let me ask you this...do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
“No, I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year.”
This exchange occurs in Ursula Le Guin’s Science Fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. I mentioned this and a few related passages on the two kinds of patriotism in my review last month, but I have been unable to stop thinking about Le Guin’s idea of the two kinds of patriotism since.
Today is July 4 - Independence Day here in the United States. I will be observing the holiday in the usual way. I’m having some family and friends over for some grilled meat and corn on the cob and other delights. After dark, we are blowing up a bunch of fireworks. (Fortunately, I live where they are still legal.) I’ll proudly wear my American flag shirt, and enjoy a bit of poetical affection for my country, which I love.
But I’m going to admit, this year - and last - it won’t be the same.
It has been hard to be a patriot of the one kind lately, because “patriotism” has been largely co-opted by patriotism of the other, darker kind.
See, I am, and have always considered myself to be a true patriot. I do love America. I love the land of my birth, the only land I have known. Heck, I was born in 1976 - I’m a Bicentennial baby.
I love the aspirational America, the America which is a land of opportunity - and not just for native-born white people. I love the America which welcomes immigrants seeking a better life, the America that embraces refugees and the people other countries consider refuse. I love the America which embraced universal education in order to create a literate population even before we became a nation. I love the America which realized that in order to have a more peaceful world after World War Two, we would need to be generous in assisting our enemies to rebuild. I love the America which has sought to build alliances by mutual benefit rather than exploitation.
I love the America that saw the need (as far back as Abraham Lincoln) to preserve and protect our natural and human treasures by establishing the National Park System - and I want to preserve them from destruction. I love the America stands for Liberty and Justice for All. I love the America that believes in caring for its own, and believes that our greatness is measured by the least of our citizens, not the richest. I love the America that took the bold step of separating church and state - which benefits both. I love the America with the boldness to invest in public works which benefit us all, from the Interstate Highway System to the civil aviation system to the public libraries free to all. I love the America where a person’s worth isn’t dependent on his or her net worth, but on the content of character.
Has America lived up to its aspirations? In too many cases, no. But that doesn’t make the aspirations irrelevant or meaningless. It just means we have work to do.
This is the poetic kind of patriotism.
I am a big fan of things that fly. (My dad worked in aviation for decades.) I love to attend air shows, and hear the scream of a jet at full afterburner. I have family and friends that serve or have served in our military - and I have a lot of respect for our men and women in uniform. This respect stems in significant part from the aspiration of our armed forces to fight in just causes, and to protect the vulnerable here and abroad.
The Blue Angles at China Lake NAS earlier this year...
Part of my patriotism regarding our military is that I desire that we think carefully before we start wars. It should not be even debatable that war is hell, damaging the enemy, both military and civilian, and damaging the victors as well. It should therefore only be waged in a just cause, and as a last resort. We ought never return to the 18th Century vision of war as the extension of the egos of the powerful or of violence as a way of building a twisted form of “character.” That wars are necessary in our fallen world is a sad reality, but we owe it to our soldiers to think before risking their lives and health.
I have family in law enforcement. I want them to come home safely to their families. But I also want the Tamir Rices and Philando Castiles to come home safely to their families - and everyone will be safer if policing reform reduces the level of fear. Because I am a patriot, I want America to be safe for all - regardless of color.
As the descendant of impoverished immigrants - religious refugees: not the right sort of Christian for either Germany or Russia - I love the America that welcomes the next wave of immigrants too, not just the ones I resemble.
This is my patriotism, my love for country. I believe in the idea of America, even as we fail to live up to that idea. I believe we should strive to make America what it could be for everyone, not just the wealthy, white, or privileged. I believe in seeking to be a beacon of hope and a destination for the world. I believe in welcoming and embracing those who seek to share that vision.
Unfortunately, there is a second kind of patriotism.
This patriotism defines itself not by love, but by hate. Not by embrace but by exclusion. Not by what we have to be proud of but by fear of having to share it.
Le Guin describes the prime minister Tibe:
He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate.
This is the essence of “Make America Great Again” as it is used. It pretends to be pride and love, but it really means arrogance and hate. Arrogance that we were so much better before we let all the brown skinned vermin in. Hate directed at Latinos, Blacks, and Muslims. A determination to exclude as many of those who wish to come and share in the American dream from coming here at all. It is the stoking of fear of “the other,” which leads (as Yoda noted correctly) to hate. It is stirring up fear of immigrants, Muslims, inner city poor (think: Blacks), of anyone not exactly like the majority. And it is expressed in political action directed against those who have been manufactured as a threat.
This is what makes it hard for me to wave the flag. I don’t want to be confused with that sort of patriot. When I fly the stars and stripes, I don’t want African Americans to think I do not value their lives too. When I fly the flag, I don’t want Latinos and Muslims to think I don’t want them here, or devalue the contributions they make every day to America. When I fly the flag, I want people to know I embrace them as Americans and as humans made in God’s image, regardless of color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, wealth or poverty, or political affiliation. I don’t want my flag to symbolize the “patriotism” of hate and exclusion.
And Tibe does what the Right in our country is doing now:
Now Karhide was to pull herself together and do the same; and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or by improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make a people into a nation: war. His ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound. The only other means of mobilizing people rapidly and entirely is with a new religion; none was handy; he would make do with war.
See, actually improving things through reform is hard work. It is hard, expensive work, and requires a willingness to share of one’s bounty for the good of all. It is so much easier to find someone to hate and blame them. It’s easier to wage war on those we deem enemies than to invest in building a better world.
To actually address the problems our nation faces requires this. We can’t rebuild our aging infrastructure for free. Nor can we bring the cost of education down to where it was for my parents’ generation without actually investing in it. We cannot have a functional society in which illness means financial ruin or death for millions - and improving that will require investment. We cannot improve our trade without seeking mutually beneficial relationships with others. As my parents taught me growing up, the surest way to healthy self esteem is to earn it by doing good things. Tearing others down to feel good about yourself leads to misplaced arrogance - helping others leads to a feeling of self-worth which is based on solid ground. And another thing I was taught: running a successful company - or a society - isn’t a matter of getting rid of all the “losers.” It’s about facilitating everyone being the best they can be.
I grew up during the Reagan years, and I remember him saying, “Tear down this wall!” That’s the kind of patriotism I have, the kind that tears down walls, rather than build them.
This is the American dream. We can take in the hopeless, the abused, the desperate, the impoverished, and enable them to thrive. Do we live up to that? All too often, no. But many of us still aspire to that.
So today, I’ve got my tri-tip heating and my adult beverages cooling, a stash of fireworks to light the sky when it gets dark. I’m going to celebrate the America that could be, with liberty and justice for all. And I’m going to be doing my little part to make that dream come true for everyone. Because that’s what patriotism means to me.
Holidays need music. Aaron Copland was the first American composer to popularize a truly American sound. Sure, Ives came first, and was a true original, but his stuff never took off, and isn’t as accessible. Copland wrote stuff that just sounds American, that would never be mistaken for an imitation of European music.
Perhaps his most famous work (except for Hoedown) is his Fanfare for the Common Man. In 1942, Copland was asked (along with a number of other composers) to compose a fanfare for the Cincinnati Symphony with a patriotic theme. Perhaps something in honor of the soldiers, or for a solemn occasion. The standard ideas - particularly during a time of world war.
Copland went a different direction: a fanfare dedicated to the common man, the backbone of any nation.
This work, written for brass and percussion, is a concert standard, and a true work of genius. However, Copland realized he had a fantastic melody on his hands, and reworked the fanfare into the final movement of his Third Symphony. And it is glorious. Enjoy.