The town where I grew up is about 30 miles from Lexington and Concord; a school friend's house had been built in 1774 by Captain Jonathan Parker, who a year later was one of the Minutemen confronting the British, probably not at the Concord bridge, but sniping at them from behind stone farm walls on their retreat to Boston. Massachusetts celebrated April 19 as an honest-to-god, get out of school holiday, Patriots' Day, and part of the route of the Boston marathon held on that day went down High Rock Street, passing a block from my house, where High Rock crossed Marked Tree Road, referring to a tree marked by Indians in the 18th century that had survived well into the 20th. In school we were steeped in the colonial era and the Revolution as Oregon children of the day were in the Pioneers and the Oregon Trail. We read Johnny Tremaine, but not Little House of the Prairie, made field trips to Lexington and Concord, and Old Sturbridge Village, and Plimoth Plantation, and Paul Revere's house and the U.S.S. Constitution and Old North Church on the Freedom Trail in Boston. (The gift shop at Old North Church was notable for its rock candy.) In state mandated fifth and eight grade U.S. history courses we never made it to the Civil War; mirabile dictu, "accelerated" U.S. history in 11th grade, for those of us let in, got us all the way to World War I.
My father was a closet artist and a professional book designer, so we spent time in museums, and I learned to wonder whether it was the Museum of Fine Arts, the big one with the statue of the Sioux-ish Indian on horseback in chiefly feathered headdress with his arms spread wide and his head thrown back to the sun (or rain, or snow), or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum a few blocks away, the one built around a Venetian palazzo-like courtyard, that owned the original portrait of Revere by the famous tory painter John Singleton Copley, and which owned a mere copy, simply to wonder at the unfinished portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart in the MFA, which gave the model for the dollar bill, and its companion portrait of Martha, who looked like a nice person, and to appreciate the fine silver crafted by Revere on display at the MFA (two flights above the mummies). Old North Church held another famous painting, by John Trumbull, a heroic battle scene depicting the death of Dr. Warren at the battle of Bunker Hill, really Breed's Hill, as we had all been tutored to know, though the monument remained the Bunker Hill Monument. In the background, also dying, lay the redcoat Major John Pitcairn, held by our family lore to be possibly an ancestor, or at any rate the cousin of one.
Patriotism in my childhood was reflected mostly on holidays, with parades: Memorial Day and Veterans' Day, especially when I was a bit older and in the Boy Scouts, but above all, the Fourth of July. The town had a pretty substantial parade, which varied a little year by year, but had common elements whose repetition was reassuring: floats in general, several high school marching bands, the local Ford dealer riding horseback made up like a plains Indian chief from the movies, his skin somehow colored reddish brown, crossing back and forth the streets along the route saying "How," the kids' bike horde, all wrapped in red, white and blue crepe paper, the bagpipe band (my favorite), the contingent of antique cars. And firecrackers, and sparklers, and the ugle smelly little snake pellets whose appeal I never understood, and the real fireworks on the High School Hill. And the flags, everywhere, on the houses, in the parade, the little ones in our hands. Even after twenty or so years here, off and on, I still am not used to Portland's elevation of the Rose Festival parades and lack of a serious one on the Fourth of July.
One year when I was little, my tricycle got donated to a Fourth of July parade float my father helped make for the Needham Fair Housing Committee, with the theme "Throw Discrimination in the Dump!" My trike formed part of the garbage for the dump-on-wheels; for years afterward there lived in our garage a couple of papier-maché seagulls that my father had made, constructing them around balloons and chicken-wire wings, neck and head, and painting them when dried. Partly on this account, and other related activities by my parents in the 1960s, patriotism in my mind was always connected to the idea of fairness and equality, and the view that if the country wasn't perfect you could and should do stuff to make it better. The one time I marched in the parade was when, at the behest of a high school history teacher and a friend, I got involved in a group that organized local events and re-enactments in connection with the U.S. Bicentennial. Of course the Bicentennial started off early around Boston, with commemorations from the Boston Massacre onward, and peaked early, in April 1975, in Concord. So I marched in our local Fourth of July parade in poorly made knee breeches, a felt hat (round, not tricorn) covering my coincidentally accurate slightly greasy long hair, and a shirt with puffy sleeves, carrying a flintlock musket that would shoot blank rounds, with real black powder, and give a satisfying report and puff of smoke, though I don't know what would have happened if you'd tried to put a lead ball in it and shoot. And I marched in the much longer parade on April 19, 1975, for the two-hundredth anniversary of the shot heard 'round the world, a parade that covered a good deal of a Minuteman-like route from near Boston to Concord, earning me some patriotic blisters from my faux-buckled shoes.
But by that April day, I had become quite ambivalent about the whole business. When we marched into the National Park in Concord that contains the bridge, or a replica, to gather up and be addressed by President Ford, the last bit of the route was lined by hundreds of state police in riot gear. They were there to protect the president, and something vaguer like "good order," I suppose, against sixty thousand or so slightly rebellious counter-celebrants who had turned out under the aegis of the People's Bicentennial Commission, launched a number of years earlier by Jeremy Rifkin, who was later famous as an early opponent of genetic engineering. The PBC was consciously counter-cultural, in part a reaction to the stuffy self-congratulation of the official commemorations, but also political, arguing that the Nixon-era imperial United States had lost its way, which rendered the official patriotic assertions of the U.S. as a beacon to the world hollow, and trying to assert a different kind of patriotism as embodied in social movements for equality and against U.S. wars in Southeast Asia (Saigon fell less than two weeks later). As I marched in between the phalanxes of cops, for so I perceived them, rank upon rank, having been brought there by my loyalty to my group and friends, still I thought I ought to be on the other side of those police with the PBC crowd, and emotionally part of me wished I was, despite my friends.
For by 1975 it had been a number of years since opposition to the Vietnam War, the American-Vietnamese War I should say, had radicalized me, in an incomplete, juvenile sort of way. I had been working out my adolescent struggles to define my own sense of morality and justice in the context of coming to understand Free Fire Zones, and trying to grasp the scope and meaning of the statistics of the number and tonnage of bombs that the U.S. had dropped on Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, of the number of Vietnamese who had died. I didn't hate or blame U.S. soldiers, though I was glad when the draft was abolished when I was 15, so I wouldn't have to face the choice of going or resisting. But I wasn't focused on the U.S. soldiers either. I was focused on the millions, the millions of tons of bombs, the millions of Vietnamese killed. Who I hated was Nixon, and Agnew, and Kissinger, and the faceless others, faceless to me, who directed those bombs (I was too young for Johnson to mean much to me, despite The Pentagon Papers, paperback edition). So too, as a result, I came to hate the claims they made in the name of patriotism, and to think, if that's what patriotism is, if being patriotic means I have to support the great evils being conducted in my name, then I'm not patriotic, and don't want to be. And if someone wanted to accuse me of being unpatriotic for thinking my country had no right to wreak havoc and mass murder on another people, fine, let them.
In the decades since then I've gone back and forth about patriotism. I've focused politically at times on the Whig version of the American story, the one where things aren't perfect, but keep getting better, though as a graduate student in history I smiled with ironic appreciation at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's more accurate telling of the story, on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Constitution:
I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever "fixed" at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.
I've listened, and not often demurred, when others on the left argued that we should reclaim patriotism, not cede the claim to it to reactionary forces who used it to justify arrogant power and false or hypocritical versions of American values. Though the arguments seemed true enough, I doubted if the idea of patriotism could ever be recuperated fully for me in that way. In studying African history and living in Africa, I relearned to be grateful for the comfort of my life in the United States, though only with deeper, more detailed trouble in my mind and spirit at its sources and costs. In opposing recent wars of the "sole superpower"'s imperium, I have not ignored U.S. soldiers, but believed and argued that the prices they and their families and communities have paid form part of what needs repair and reparation, insofar as possible, while knowing that's only so far. I've respected the patriotism of others, and not tried to impose my doubts on my child as she develops her own sense of right and wrong, with the help of parents, relatives, teachers and friends, and of her place in the world.
But, after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, just as I did not think that "everything had changed," seeing instead a continuity with what had gone before, so too I did not experience the surge of renewed or first-time patriotism reported by many people at the time. Instead, if anything has renewed some sense of patriotism for me, it has been the felt need to defend the better parts of the U.S. Constitution against the depredations of Bush administration's unconstitutional and anti-democratic power grabs. It's not quite clear whether that reaction has been despite or because of the fact that the Bush assaults on civil rights and liberties have, as usual, and quite literally, been made in the name of patriotism, including one particularly bald-faced, bold-faced lie: the "USA PATRIOT Act." Whether despite or because, it doesn't seem right to allow them that lie.
Then these past weeks has arrived news of the warmongers come out again, hawking their wares, this time against Iran. This week in particular has come the reporting, by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, that Congress has approved President Bush's request for up to $400 million to expand, massively, twinned CIA covert intelligence and Joint Special Operations Command clandestine military operations inside Iran. I expect to write more about that, but inter alia Hersh's sources say the effort involves moving large quantities of personnel, materiel, and money into Iran. The money, or much of it, is being put into the hands of armed opposition groups including groups organized around Kurdish and Azwahi Arab ethnicity, the "Islamic socialist" Mujahedin-e-Khalq, which the State Department lists as a terrorist organization, and radical Salafi Sunnis from Baluchistan who have close ideological and historical ties with the Afghan Taliban and thus Al Qaeda. Coincidentally, or maybe not, there has been a rise in civil violence in Iran, including bombings of mosques and other places, and assassinations of a police colonel and others.
Now, if another country sent large numbers of well equipped people with great quantities of cash secretly into the U.S., or into a U.S. ally, with the aim of fomenting violent civil disorder and instability, and if those persons in turn funded armed anti-government groups and encouraged their violent acts, what would we call it? In all likelihood we would call the people terrorists, though depending on their own actual acts they might in a strict sense only be spies, or if their numbers were large enough, invaders.
But we are liberal these days with the designation of terrorists, so I suspect that is what we would call them. We certainly would call those receiving the money and other support to commit violent acts terrorists, and call the government sending the aid state sponsors of terrorism.
So suddenly, as Independence Day approaches in 2008, my mind carries me back once more to 1975, and I find my doubts renewed yet again. Part of me resists giving up the idea of patriotism. Come else what may, I adamantly refuse to regard the makers of illegal war and traducers of the Constitution as patriots.
Yet my country already has begun yet another aggression, this time against Iran, against law and against what is right. And it has done so acting as a state sponsor of terrorism against another people. And it has done so with assent and concurrence of Congressional leaders of both major political parties, and with acts of financial appropriation by ill-named Defense Appropriations sub-committees of Congress, that are acts of connivance which must include members of both political parties.
I hate that my country is doing these things, over the opposition of a large majority of the people. I hate that we powerless to stop our government from this aggression and anti-civilian violence. I hate that those of my representatives whom I believe oppose these criminal acts also apparently are powerless to stop them. And I hate that others of my representatives, in the sense of leaders of my increasingly nominal party, are so politically craven, so venal, or so politically and morally stupid, that they are assenting and conniving in these crimes. For me, for this Independence Day, they all, taken together, have put paid to patriotism.
Truly and honestly, I wish everyone may have a happy and safe Fourth of July. But give a thought for the Iranians who may not have one, and what we might do about it after the holiday.