Out of many we are one, despite the odds

There’s not much united about the United States, which is a point worth celebrating on this Fourth of July.

None of us has cornered the market on how to express patriotism, for example, or whether to express it. I suppose it’s even possible to be a good American without feeling patriotic at all, although that’s hard for me to imagine.

A certain kind of American gets all misty when the flag passes by. Some cannot see the celebration of our nation’s birth except through the lens of military service and sacrifice. But I’ve always thought that that’s why we have Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day to remind us of those who gave their last full measure of devotion to preserve our, what? It seems trite to say our liberties, our freedoms, our way of life. Those terms get tossed around so cheaply.

I prefer to think that they died to preserve our splendid experiment, our ongoing project, our ideal yet to be perfected. This isn’t a notion that Justice Scalia would approve of — that the founders didn’t forge a more perfect union once and for all and have it chiseled onto a stone tablet — but rather that they set in motion a noble and complex process that continues to change shape over time, a continuing revolution driven not by some singular interpretation of American scripture but by a variety of views that, when considered together, forms an improbable bond. By all the forces of physics we should fly apart, but we don’t. Out of many we are one, despite the odds. To me, that’s the mystical essence of the Fourth of July.

I don’t get misty when the flag passes by. I do get misty — sometimes — on board the 11B bus when I hear the cacophony of languages from people scratching out better lives, just as our forebears did. I do get misty whenever I see the giant redwoods and the surf pounding the California coast, or hear a loon on a quiet Minnesota lake, or catch a first glimpse of the ivy-covered walls at Wrigley Field, or drive down the Shenandoah Valley at the peak of leaf season, or, on the Fourth of July, when I hear Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” or “Fanfare for the Common Man” on the radio as the scent of backyard barbecues drifts over the trees. I’m a sucker for that kind of America.

Individual patriotic sensibilities
It’s not for everyone, I know. Each of us gets to have his or her own patriotic sensibility. A flag pin on the lapel is important to a lot of people. But it’s not a badge of proof that their brand of patriotism is better than anybody else’s, and it’s too bad that Barack Obama, now duly pinned, caved in to the pressure.

More than that, his speech on patriotism this week was the saddest moment of the campaign, not because of what he said, but because he felt compelled to defend his belief in his native land in the first place. Poisoned by innuendo from the right wing and ambushed by his own former pastor, Obama was deemed insufficiently patriotic by a good percentage of Americans, according to the polls. And so, by the same rules of conventional politics that he has vowed to change, Obama made his speech, although he couldn’t have been happy about it. Here’s part of what he said:

“It is worth considering the meaning of patriotism because the question of who is — or is not — a patriot all too often poisons our political debates in ways that divide us rather than bringing us together.”

(He could have been referring to a low point in presidential politics engineered 20 years ago by political hacks. The Republican nominee, George H.W. Bush, stood in front of a flag factory in New Jersey and wondered aloud what exactly it was that his opponent had against the American flag. Michael Dukakis had thought it un-American to force schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to it, had thought that the mandatory expression of patriotism ran against the essence of American freedom, had thought that coercing children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to a free country was more than a little ironic.)

(Bush’s son picked up the theme in 2002-03 by suggesting that if you were against attacking and occupying Iraq you weren’t a very good American. Either you’re for us or you’re against us, he said, which led to the idea that someone not wearing a flag lapel pin or not displaying a “Support the Troops” bumper sticker was suspect.)

Abiding love taken as a given
Obama continued: “I have come to know this from my own experience on the campaign trail. Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given. It was how I was raised; it is what propelled me into public service; it is why I am running for president. And yet, at certain times over the last 16 months, I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged — at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for. So let me say this at the outset of my remarks: I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine. …

“Given the enormous challenges that lie before us, we can no longer afford these sorts of divisions. None of us expect that arguments about patriotism will, or should, vanish entirely; after all, when we argue about patriotism, we are arguing about who we are as a country, and more importantly, who we should be. But surely we can agree that no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism. …

“As Mark Twain, the greatest of American satirists … once wrote, ‘Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.’ We may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, and there are many times in our history when that’s occurred. But when our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expression of patriotism.

“The young preacher from Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr., who led a movement to help America confront our tragic history of racial injustice and live up to the meaning of our creed — he was a patriot. The young soldier who first spoke about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib — he is a patriot. Recognizing a wrong being committed in this country’s name; insisting that we deliver on the promise of our Constitution — these are the acts of patriots, men and women who are defending that which is best in America. And we should never forget that — especially when we disagree with them; especially when they make us uncomfortable with their words.

The willingness to sacrifice
“Beyond a loyalty to America’s ideals, beyond a willingness to dissent on behalf of those ideals, I also believe that patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice — to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause. For those who have fought under the flag of this nation — for the young veterans I meet when I visit Walter Reed; for those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country — no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary.

“And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides. We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period. Indeed, one of the good things to emerge from the current conflict in Iraq has been the widespread recognition that whether you support this war or oppose it, the sacrifice of our troops is always worthy of honor.”

It’s a delicate and difficult point. Sometimes there are mistaken wars and soldiers die for no good reason, but it’s not their fault. American patriotism takes that into account, and takes into account, also, the imperfections of those elected to lead us, and the imperfections of those who voted for those imperfect leaders, and the imperfections of those who bothered not to vote at all, and the imperfections of those who are overly arrogant in their dissent. The list of our flaws is long; the list of our attributes is relatively short but incredibly powerful. Our experiment holds together despite the odds. Out of many we are miraculously one.

When I hang my flag on the deck this year, I’ll think about Mark Twain’s definition of patriotism. “The nation is divided,” he said, “half patriots and half traitors, and no man can tell which from which.”

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