Friday, July 2, 2010

Can a Lefty Gay Man in New York Be Patriotic?

Who loves a sailor? Who loves the bare feet and Phrygian Cap look? Who loves Liberty guaranteed by Equal Justice Under Law? Who loves being a citizen and not a subject or an employee, or a social issue?

I was looking on YouTube for some kind of patriotic song, a USA version of the Marseillaise that I usually post for Bastille Day, or the versions of “O Canada” that I recently posted for Canada Day. In the end, I just said, “screw it.”

Most were triumphalist jingoism along the lines of "Proud to Be An American." I couldn’t find a single one that didn’t come with an agenda or a thread filled with hateful comments lobbed back and forth by various factions. Sad to say, I think that says a whole lot about our very divided and deeply conflicted country these days. Some people seem to think that they have the exclusive copyrights to national symbols and patriotism. Other people have so thoroughly identified all of our national symbols with everything politically White and Right that they don’t want anything to do with them anymore, conceding a legitimate inheritance to those who want to take it from them.

Can liberals and progressives be patriotic? Right-wingers suspect our loyalties because of our universalist and internationalist ideas. But then, the United States was created out of ideas that were seen by its founders as universal and trans-national. While many in American history casually discarded those founding ideas (we forget that Abraham Lincoln’s transformation of the Declaration of Independence from an 18th century relic into a binding document in his Gettysburg Address was very controversial), American progressives remained deeply loyal to them and kept them alive. We made sure that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” did not become the exclusive property of any one class or caste. We struggled for 2 centuries to make sure that “We the People” in the all-important Preamble to the Constitution truly included all the people, and not just white male property owners.

We forget how many of those national symbols now claimed by the Right were created by “libruls” (and gay ones at that, like Ms. Bates).

-Katherine Lee Bates, a professor at Wellesley College, wrote “America the Beautiful” after a now famous trip to Pikes Peak in Colorado, and to protest the landscape being carved up by the banks and railroads squeezing out small farmers and businesses.

-Francis Bellamy, a Baptist Minister and a Christian Socialist involved in the labor movement wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. His Pledge has been modified, but here is his original text:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Congress changed the opening phrase to “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America…” in 1923.
The phrase “under God” was inserted in 1954 as a consequence of the Cold War.
Southern politicians long objected to the phrase “…with liberty and justice for all” because of its strong implications of racial equality.

-A very small group of French liberals under the leadership of Edouard de Laboulaye came up with the idea of the Statue of Liberty sometime in the late 1860s during the last years of the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon. They were great admirers of the United States and hoped to create a similar democratic and liberal state in France. The group met in secret until Louis Napoleon’s fall in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. They met openly during the Third Republic, hoping to steer the new government in a more liberal and democratic direction. The sculptor Frederic Bartholdi was a member of that group and came up with the design for the statue. He intended the statue to be a revolutionary image of Liberty defying the darkness of oppression and superstition with her light.
A large number of Americans resisted the gift of the Statue. They didn’t want anything from France, still less anything that had the taint of revolution about it. By agreement, the French would make and build the Statue, while the USA would build the base. Congress resisted funding the construction of the base. The Statue was supposed to be completed in time for the 1876 Centennial, but poor funding and controversy in the USA delayed its completion for 10 years. It was Joseph Pulitzer who exposed the scandal of the Statue’s delays and funding in his newspapers. He started a campaign encouraging small donations, publishing the names of all donors in his newspapers. School children began donating pennies to the campaign. Pulitzer published all of their names to thank them for their donations, and to shame Gilded Age plutocrats for their stinginess and lack of patriotism.

-Another liberal, Emma Lazarus, created the current understanding of the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of hope and refuge for the poor and dispossessed of the world. She was descended from Sephardic Jews who settled in New York in the 17th century. She wrote her famous poem “The New Colossus” in 1883 as construction began on the base of the Statue of Liberty, and as she lay dying of lymphoma. She was too ill to attend the Statue’s dedication in 1886. She died in 1887.
Here is her poem:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips.

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I remember sitting on the steps of the Federal Hall Memorial down on Nassau and Wall streets a few weeks after the September 11th attacks. I looked at the huge American flag on the front of the Stock Exchange and I remembered a friend of mine saying, “Well of course they fly the flag, they own it.” I remember sitting there wondering just how truly loyal and patriotic it is to keep over-seas tax shelters in a time of national calamity.

The highlight of my Gay Day this year was shaking hands with Lt. Dan Choi who was all by himself down on Christopher Street working the crowds.
My friend David Kaplan observed over dinner the day before that LGBTs are probably the last people who really believe in the United States. They want to join the military, to make families, to join churches, to take part in their communities. They actively seek responsibility contrary to the larger culture and the dominant political ideologies today that are all about evading responsibility.


People always assume that American lefty politics is a thing of the librul elitist coasts. In fact, it began in places like Gillespie, Illinois.


And how could I forget this deeply patriotic, and radically egalitarian song?

Hat tip to Jason Chappell.


JCF said...

I was looking on YouTube for some kind of patriotic song

May I suggest this?

Jason Chappell said...

"Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious."

That's my favorite quote by Oscar Wilde, but one night while listening to "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie (especially the later verses), I realized that in the USA it really comes down to celebrating the light as opposed to the light bulb. Fuck the patriotic right - don't concede the love of real freedom to those who would put a wall around it with every chance they got. Thus, on this 4th as always, I'm celebrating the light, and vowing to stay loud and in the face of those who speak of freedom while resisting its advance. Happy Independence Day.

JCF said...

More recently, I also really like this: Melissa Etheridge at the 2008 Dem Convention

Well, it's more recent . . . but doesn't the OPTIMISM of Summer 2008 already seem like ages ago? (Sigh.)

Counterlight said...

On the one hand, we love our countries like we love our families, not because they are particularly wonderful (they usually aren't), but because they are ours.

On the other hand, I love the Flag like I love the Gospel. I refuse to let either be taken away from me by people who would shit all over them both rather than see people like me make a claim on them.

It is indeed about loving the light and not the bulb.

And sadly, the brave hope of 2008 does indeed seem so far away now. Leave it to the Dems to alienate the very people who voted them into power in the first place (minorities, women, the young, Latinos, the poor, labor, and their most inconvenient constituency, gay and lesbians).

June Butler said...

Wonderful post, Doug. Another history lesson.

Oh the heady days of 2008!

I like your analogy about country and family. It works.

And Jason, you have it right.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for a great post. At least “America the Beautiful” was written by a lesbian. I wish I had known that when I was forced to sing her song every day while growing up in the Iowa public schools!

More info on the illustrious Ms. Bates at:

Counterlight said...

Here is a post from KittKat that Blogger will not publish for some mysterious reason:

Thanks for a great post. At least “America the Beautiful” was written by a lesbian. I wish I had known that when I was forced to sing her song every day while growing up in the Iowa public schools!

More info on the illustrious Ms. Bates at: