following is an excerpt from Give
Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, by Naomi
What are we
supposed to do to reclaim freedom? We need to understand that we
are bombarded with both fake patriotism and fake democracy. Only
then can we get to the real American mandate.
The key ways,
the phrases and metaphors, in which we are often asked to think
about America tend to make us stupid, complacent, and inert. They
are also, if you go back to what the great Americans wished us to
identify as love of country, just plain wrong. Today, politicians
often ask us to think of ourselves as a kind of "chosen people"
by birthright: "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned
by history to be a model to the world," as George W. Bush asserted
during the 2000 election campaign.
Over the past
four decades, patriotism was often defined as uncritical support
for U.S. policies — such as the Vietnam War–era bumper sticker MY
COUNTRY, RIGHT OR WRONG. Patriotism was also branded as support
for U.S. militarism, whatever the context or conflict or cost. Sometimes
patriotism was identified with "Christian America" and
sometimes even as direct evangelism in the context of statecraft.
Finally patriotism was rebranded as the active silencing of dissent.
John McCain, for instance, whose campaign messaging in 2008 was
grounded in a theme of patriotism, recently called in public for
members of MoveOn.org to be kicked out of the country. But all these
rebrandings of patriotism would have dismayed the great Americans
who had all at various times criticized U.S. military actions, U.S.
policies, the establishment of any state religion, and most of all,
criticized those who would silence disagreeing voices and dissent.
How did "patriotism"
become so dumbed down? There are many reasons. During the Vietnam
War, the left often abandoned a claim on the notion of "patriotism."
Young antiwar leaders challenged the mythology of the stars and
stripes — fair enough — but spent less energy reinvestigating and
reanimating the ideals the flag was intended to represent. By disdaining
America's own most radical heritage, the left let the right "brand"
patriotism. Today's leaders on the left rarely assert that the most
radical revolution in human history has already taken place — in
1776 — and that it is spreading in fits and starts around the globe.
Their message rarely calls on citizens to reclaim the American Revolution
above any other.
for everyone across the political spectrum, the religious right,
especially during the 1970s and 1980s, redefined patriotism in ways
that would have appalled Paine, Jefferson, Washington, and Adams
— not to mention the Republican president Abraham Lincoln. "Patriotism"
became identified with blind loyalty and a sense that America is
innately better than the rest of the world.
So today, we
often believe that we as Americans are "the Elect" — a
special, almost a chosen, people, who are uniquely entitled to a
place in the sun. Where did that idea originally come from? For
it is actually a direct heresy against the founders' intent.
did not create liberty for America, but America for liberty, which
they understood as part of universal law. The notion of an America
that was above other nations because we were somehow better, already
"saved" — rather than an America that was continually
called to become better, continually charged with saving
itself — is an idea that only came into vogue about fifty years
after the revolution of 1776. This idea emerged out of the religious
revival movement called the Second Great Awakening. The founders
and the greatest Americans of the previous generation would have
been apoplectic at the conception that the U.S. is simply saved,
simply special, whether or not it does good works.
calling America to face itself is central to the task the founders
and great Americans explicitly left us.
In 2008, presidential
contender Barack Obama was pilloried in the mainstream press because
he associated with a minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who
gave speeches blisteringly critical of U.S. policies. In a sermon,
"The Day of Jerusalem's Fall," delivered soon after the
September 11 attacks in 2001, Wright said, "We bombed Hiroshima,
we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in
New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye . . . and
now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is
now brought back into our own front yards. America's chickens are
coming home to roost." Wright called on his parishioners to
respond to this by rededicating themselves to God. Yet Reverend
Wright's call for the U.S. to look in the mirror has been deemed
unpatriotic — so unpatriotic, in fact, that the Republican opposition
is turning these quotes into an ad campaign in the South.
challenging language would have been right at home alongside the
sermons of the Puritans whom we celebrate at Thanksgiving, as well
as alongside many of the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick
Douglass, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.
The great Americans
defined America as a chance for us not to flatter but rather to
confront ourselves. They did not define patriotism as a smug legacy
of entitlement, but as a universal challenge that always included
the demand for self-correction. But we are so used to being raised
on a rhetoric of artificial patriotism — the kind that you get to
tune in to in a feel-good way just because you were lucky enough
to have been born here and then can pretty much forget about — that
this definition seems positively foreign today.
The phony patriotism
we are fed starts with the misuse of sources that go back to the
very beginning of the republic. John Winthrop was a minister who
sailed with a small band of Puritans from England, where they were
violently persecuted, to Massachusetts in 1630. When the emigrants
arrived in harbor after the harrowing journey, he gave a sermon,
"A Model of Christian Charity."
modern politicians cite this sermon, saying that we are or
that "we will be" a "city on a hill" — implying
that we are innately good and that God has set us permanently up
above other nations to be an effortless role model to them.
But this is
the opposite of the message of the author of the "city on a
hill" sermon. The original phrase Winthrop used is from Jesus's
Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew: "Ye are the light
of the world. A city that is set on [a] hill cannot be hid. Neither
do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick,
and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light
so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify
your Father which is in heaven." Winthrop knew perfectly well
that the "city on a hill" metaphor he was invoking was
about doing good deeds, about behaving righteously and justly. The
whole point of the metaphor in the Gospel that it is good works,
and not ethnic or racial identity, let alone national identity,
that gives "light."
often misquoted Winthrop. Reagan declared, "Standing on the
tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast,
John Winthrop said, u2018We will be as a city upon a hill.'"
Reagan not only got the verb wrong, he also regularly omitted the
rest of the paragraph. John Winthrop did not write that we are
like a "city on a hill," nor did he declare that "we
will be" like one. Rather he said that we shall be
like a city on a hill. "Shall" is a seventeenth-century
conjugation of the verb "should"; it is not a declarative
term, it is an imperative one. "Thou shalt not commit adultery"
doesn't mean "You won't." It means "You should not,"
or "You must not." That is, Winthrop's is an active demand
for goodness, not by any means a claim of goodness.
Winthrop was saying clearly that we have to earn the blessing that
is "America" and that the way we deserve it is by engaging
continually in acts of righteousness. Furthermore, Winthrop wrote
that if we were to fail to act justly, we would deserve
the curses that would come our way — a point Abraham
Lincoln would make just as confrontationally and unflinchingly more
than 200 years later.
and later Lincoln and Rev. Martin Luther King would say to Americans
that if we failed to be just, we would deserve the hostility that
would come our way from others, both from friends and enemies; deserve
the darkness that God would have in store for us; and even deserve
the famine or violence that we might have to endure. "If
we act unrighteously," warned Winthrop in the often-elided
paragraph, ". . . we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak
evil of the ways of God and all professors for God's sake; we shall
shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their
prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out
of the good land whither we are going."
second inaugural address, which he gave to the nation on March 4,
1865, confronts this as well. A terrible war had been ravaging the
nation for years when Lincoln gave this speech. Almost one million
Americans were dead or wounded, cities had been destroyed, and vast
stretches of the nation had been reduced to wasteland. Surely this
was a moment for a politician to assuage a nation or at the very
least give the war some ("Mission Accomplished") spin.
Yet this speech
is so radically different from any presidential speech in the midst
of or at the end of a war that I had ever heard in my lifetime that
I had to read it through several times to believe my eyes:
. . . . On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all
thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All
dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address
was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving
the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking
to destroy it without war — seeking to dissolve the Union
and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war,
but one of them would make war rather than let the nation
survive, and the other would accept war rather than let
it perish, and the war came. . . .
the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His
aid against the other. . . . "Woe unto the world because
of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe
to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose
that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence
of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His
appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both
North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom
the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from
those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always
ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that
this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if
God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's
two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk,
and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid
by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years
ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord
are true and righteous altogether." [Emphasis mine; translation:
"If God wills that the war shall continue until all the profit
generated by enslaved Americans' 250 years of forced and unpaid
labor shall be paid out by both sides waging the war, and until
every drop of blood drawn from those Americans with the (overseer's)
whip shall be paid by another drop of blood drawn by combat (blood
from soldiers drawn by the violence of the war) -- then, as was
said three thousand years ago, u2018the judgments of the Lord are
true and righteous altogether.' "]
Was that message
in our civics books or in our SAT history books? That Lincoln believed
on a spiritual level that America would have to pay with blood and
money for the crime of slavery?
stressed that Dr. King said he had a dream. That is a very benign
sentiment. We aren't taught that he gave a 1967 sermon at Riverside
Church in New York in which, speaking about the fact that the war
was sending the poor disproportionately to fight and die in Vietnam,
he said, "I know I could never again raise my voice against
the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first
spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,
my own government. . . . If America's soul becomes totally poisoned,
part of the autopsy must read, Vietnam. It can never be saved so
long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over."
a president told us Americans today, as Winthrop, Lincoln, and King
did, that we are engaged in committing great wrongs in which blowback
is inevitable and even spiritually just: the crime, say, of subverting
democratically elected governments overseas and then subsidizing
and training death squads to murder citizens, or waging illegal
wars against nations not at war with us.
What if an
American president told us to our faces that some of the hostility
directed toward us now from the Middle East derives from our own
policies, such as torturing prisoners, and that some of the hostility
is justified? What if an American president held a mirror up to
our own faces as Lincoln so outrageously did in his second inaugural
Would we assassinate
him? Or would we look in the mirror?
suffered personally when he fell short of what he knew he was supposed
to be. The great patriots all believed that true Americans should
suffer if they looked in the mirror and saw that they fell short.
Lincoln once wrote a friend, Joshua Speed, who had advocated his
right to own slaves and had argued, as many did at the time, that
that right was enshrined in the Constitution. Lincoln noted that
one reason he opposed slavery was that it made him feel personally
miserable: "You know I dislike slavery. . . . I also acknowledge
your rights and my obligations under the Constitution in regard
to your slaves." But Lincoln went on with a seemingly casual
aside: "I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down
and caught and carried back to their stripes [lashes] and unrequited
toil; but I bite my lip and keep quiet."
evoked an image that would be emotionally unanswerable:
1841, you and I had together a tedious lowwater trip on a steamboat
from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do,
that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board
ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons. That sight
was a continual torment to me, and I see something like it every
time I touch the Ohio or any other slave border. It is not fair
for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has,
and continually exercises, the power to make me miserable. You
ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern
people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty
to the Constitution and the Union. I do
oppose the extension of slavery because my judgment and feelings
so prompt me, and I am under no obligations to the contrary. If
for this you and I must differ, differ we must. . . . As a nation
we began by declaring that "all men are created equal."
We now practically read it, "all men are created equal, except
negroes." When the Know Nothings [a racist group] get control,
it will read, "all men are created equal, except negroes
and foreigners and Catholics." When it comes to this, I shall
prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense
of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can
be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
out that the Northerners who opposed slavery had to "crucify"
their feelings about it to carry on with business as usual. From
a shift in consciousness, action — a bloody war and the Emancipation
Proclamation — followed; but the war that was waged and the laws
that were passed were outcomes first of a change in consciousness.
Is the way
Winthrop, Lincoln, and King asked their audiences to be patriotic
— that is, to face themselves — the way commentators and political
leaders ask us to be patriotic today?
Would we experience
our own gift of freedom more intensely if our leaders demanded this
of us in calling us to patriotism, and if we demanded such moral
clarity of ourselves?
Wolf [send her mail] is
the author of the NY Times-bestselling Give
Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries. See