Even #Resistance feels patriotic sometimes, doesn’t it?
It’s not necessarily a rational feeling, the patriotic stir. It has too many triggers to count, the strongest of which catches us unawares and doesn’t make much reasonable sense. Hearing Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ “Islands in the Stream” on the radio in a fussy Breton Village boutique did it for me once. The Shriners in the Memorial Day parade get me every time: There’s just something about the synchronicity of fraternity, philanthropy, tiny cars, and silly hats. And, as summer ripens around us, I find my American mind turns to mini golf. Unselfconsciously tacky, open to everyone who can front a small fee, likely to end in tears for at least one member of the family – mini golf, more or less, is America.
Scholars, activists, and overthinking politicians doubt the utility of sentimental American patriotism. But it is my strong suspicion that even they feel it sometimes, if not at parades or mini golf courses then, at least, in solemn contemplation of the space program and the national parks. Partisans dependably disagree, with conservatives tending to doubt whether anyone to their left even likes what we love most about the homeland. President Donald Trump, who hasn’t helped matters much, has a habit of hugging the flag. Meanwhile, his supporters see the many various members of the #Resistance – the latter-day flag burners, the polite Republicans turned anti-Trump talking heads with cable-news contracts, the socialist youth and its septuagenarian framers – and read their disdain for reactionary nationalism as a blanket disregard for the nation.
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Some on the left do seem readier than ever to reject the American idea outright because its authors were white men who owned people. Others see signs of late-capitalist decay in every corner of American society and publicly decry blind patriotism as a ploy to placate the proletariat. Sure, they say these things – but do they really mean it? Unconvinced, I asked them…
I asked lefty activists, perennial firebrands, progressive politicians, former conservatives now living in a perpetual state of Trump-fueled crisis, and one retired domestic terrorist what they love about America. I asked what, in 2019, gets their patriotic sap rising? I asked them to tell me what, if anything, makes them feel the way I feel about mini golf.
Bill Ayers Loves Bo Diddley
The longest answer came from Bill Ayers, who you may remember as the founder of the Weather Underground – the group that bombed the Capitol building, the Pentagon, the State Department, and a long list of corporate headquarters, city courthouses, cop cars, and police stations in the 1960s, 1970s, and even for a little bit of the 1980s. Ayers lived as a fugitive for most of his tenure as a terrorist but never went to prison for his crimes. These days, he’s an education professor in his native Chicago and enough of a pillar of the conventionally liberal community to have hosted the Obamas in their community organizing era.
Maybe misunderstanding the assignment, Ayers sent me an exuberant 4,558-word e-mail – an explosion of patriotic sentiment, you might say. And which, according to an online plagiarism-detection service, was partly an amalgamation of his Facebook posts from over the years.
“We are the chosen people, we’re building that city on the hill, and we are definitely number one. USA! USA! USA!
“The American Dream is mostly tubular (I like that word!), a pipe dream,” he writes, apparently winking at his own historical preference for pipe bombs. He contrasts lofty ideals and ugly realities, like “rampant consumerism, unchecked acquisition, being bigger and badder than anyone else,” and then adds – sarcastically, I think – “We are the chosen people, we’re building that city on the hill, and we are definitely number one. USA! USA! USA!”
In the less-than-fresh section that follows, he quibbles with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s famous line, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future” – taking this 1998 soundbite as proof that patriotism is “an arrogant myth that blinds people to global reality; it’s a big lie covering aggression, invasion, and occupation.” Ayers’ dream for America, he then reveals, isn’t actually American at all, but universal: “for a world at peace and in balance, infused with joy and justice, and powered by love.”
At that point, I nearly stopped reading. But then came the most appealing stretch of the sprawl: A paean to Chicago, from “the Chicago Cubs who teach us humility and perseverance,” to The Blues Brothers, Lake Michigan, and Bo Diddley. “Chicago is one of the things that’s so awesomely great about America,” he effuses.
Further down the line, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden join that list. But then so do the Marx Brothers. And so – in a surprisingly sharp turn from wokeness – does Christopher Columbus and his crew: “We all know the story by heart, that foundational fable, and whatever else it represented, that exploit – part myth and part symbol – took a surplus of imagination and vision, resourcefulness and courage on the part of that wild and somewhat random crew.”
Wild courage is what you need, Ayers eventually concludes, to love this country enough to plant explosives in its public buildings.
The Environmentalist You’d Wanna Have a Beer With, and Other Burlingtonians
Among the dozens of other activists Ayers name-checked in his long-winded love letter to the country whose Senate barbershop he once blew to bits was environmentalist Bill McKibben.
McKibben teaches at Middlebury College, writes prolifically about climate change and its causes, leads protests and marches to save the planet, and is widely believed to be a top choice for Bernie Sanders’ presidential cabinet should the gravelly voiced Vermonter win the big cheese next fall.
McKibben also let me know – at a more manageable length – what he loves most about America: Beer… He loves beer.
“In 1979, America was down to 44 breweries, almost all of them producing the same swill,” McKibben answers, via e-mail: “Americans began fighting back, with the local spirit that has marked America since the battle of Lexington. Now there are more than 7,000 breweries, and while the market for big tasteless lagers keeps falling, the market for craft beers seems to keep expanding endlessly.”
American beer is the best in the world, he adds, and his adoptive home state of Vermont boasts the best of the best: “Open a Heady Topper and then tell me I’m wrong,” he challenges, referring to Waterbury, Vermont’s cult-favorite craft brew. In craft beer, the men and women who make it, and the many more who consume it, McKibben sees a model for a brighter American future. “If only we could figure out how to do the same thing with every other crappy industry in America,” he concludes, “we’d be getting somewhere.”
Burlington, Vermont’s long-serving former mayor Peter Clavelle says it’s not his state’s premium, but its willingness to admit refugees from war-torn nations, that sets his patriotic heart aflutter. “The early patriots of the United States of America were refugees or immigrants,” Clavelle says. “I’m proud, and feel patriotic, when I consider how my city and the state of Vermont have welcomed uprooted people, helping the world’s most vulnerable to rebuild their lives.”
Elsewhere in Burlington – as good a place as any to set out in search of aging hippies who love their country – Howard Dean reveals his favorite thing about America: How much it’s changed, he says, since he was my age. He tacks the #MeToo movement onto his list of what makes him proud to be an American, along with the fact that the majority of students at elite universities these days are women, whereas his Yale was almost entirely white and exclusively male. The various accomplishments of nonwhite people – “There are a whole lot of African American and Hispanic millionaires because of sports, and other things,” he observes – fill him with patriotic pride.
Back when the former governor and one-time presidential contender was the progressive candidate from Vermont – before Bernie, in other words – it was Dean’s exuberance (recall the “Dean Scream”) that torpedoed his campaign. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee for years afterward, and now sits on the board of one of the world’s fastest-growing cannabis companies. When I ask him whether there are any little things that remind him of his boundless love of country – as beer does Bill McKibben – he tells me, in a distinctly mellow tone, that he prefers “to think about big things instead.”
A Mountain Man, a Baseball Fan
Evan McMullin, the CIA veteran turned anti-Trump politico who ran as an independent challenger in 2016, waxed wanly about American values. “We’re a country centered on values,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We’re not perfect at living up to them all the time, but we aspire to certain values that define us when we live up to them and we’re unique as a country for that reason.”
Particularly in contrast to Syria and Russia, where his CIA service took him, we are richly free. “In many other countries the opposition doesn’t get to have a voice, but in this country we can compete in that way. Ideas can compete, leaders can compete,” he says, conjuring memories of his own campaign.
“That’s still the case,” he assures me, and himself. “We’re living in a time when there’s a rise in authoritarianism in the U.S., but we could be having this conversation in another country where even to have this conversation would be a tremendous risk to both of us.” Every time we speak out against authoritarianism, we honor our values, he instructs. Even when we disagree, say, about the extent to which democracy has dissolved, “There are things that unite us, these values form the core of our cultural fabric.” When I ask him whether, in addition to our values, any earthly thing – like a particularly good baseball game, the beacon of a Waffle House sign seen from the interstate, or the life and works of Glen Campbell – has ever made him proud to be an American, he says, “It’s more gratitude than it is pride. Although those sentiments can be related.”
After a moment’s pause, he reconsiders. “Well, I grew up in Seattle. I like mountains.” But what are mountains, he then explains, if not a testament to our values? Not because, as I initially thought, they predate and promise to outlast our national attempt at self-government, but because they’ve stood witness to it for nearly two and a half centuries.
“They endure, they stay where they are. They stand above everything else; they’re the first to catch the morning light and the last bits of our land to keep the evening sun. Our values do the same for us,” he says. “Whether you’re on them looking down, or below them looking up, they guide us.”
Ayers roots for the Cubs, and McKibben has his favorite craft brew. McMullin’s a Mount Rainier man.
McMullin even has a favorite mountain, he tells me, the sight of which conjures that familiar old fatherland feeling. Ayers roots for the Cubs, and McKibben has his favorite craft brew. McMullin’s a Mount Rainier man.
Richard Painter was an ethics attorney in the second Bush White House, but now he’s a “Resistance icon,” according to the Huffington Post – having spent a generous portion of the last two years prophesying Trump’s demise on MSNBC. (Remember the emoluments clause?) He ran for (and lost) the Democratic Senate nomination to succeed Al Franken in Minnesota, where he teaches corporate law at the University of Minnesota.
But he still loves America. He loves baseball – he roots for the Minnesota Twins and the Red Sox – and his kids’ school, a hotbed of religious pluralism. “I am a white Christian but my children go to school with Muslims and Hindus: That makes me proud to be an American,” he tells me, adding that while his family has been here for hundreds of years, some of his best friends are recent immigrants.
Mostly, though, Painter loves the Constitution for making all this pluralism possible.
In the #Resistance, and on campus, he finds cause to worry that Millennials and Zoomers – the sub-millennial generation, born in 1995 and after, is about to start its third year of law school – don’t respect the Constitution as they should. Not even the emoluments clause.
“Overemphasizing the negative aspects of our history not only leads to a decline in patriotism but an increased willingness to tolerate undemocratic behavior,” he observes. “All of that’s very hard to communicate to the younger generation convinced that the Constitution was just drafted by a bunch of dead white men and is not relevant to modern life.”
Even Socialists Get Sick of Feta
Among other pied pipers leading these worryingly woke youth is Internet socialist Sean McElwee, who, at 26, runs a leftist think tank and launches viral “thought campaigns” straight from his Twitter feed to the platforms of far-left progressive politicians. The resiliently unpopular – per his think tank’s own polling data – but rabidly retweeted push to “Abolish ICE” was born on McElwee’s feed. The Green New Deal was his dream before he handed it off to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom he prefers to oldster Bernie Sanders. Automatic voter registration is the next big craze, McElwee believes.
Before he was planting his far-left policy ideas into progressive candidates’ stump speeches, he attended the evangelical King’s College during Dinesh D’Souza’s brief tenure as its president and worked for deficit hawk Dave Walker’s Comeback America Initiative. His leftward drift came later.
Does McElwee love America? I asked via his preferred medium – Twitter. And he said, “The thing I love about America is that racial attitudes and economic attitudes are highly correlated, which means it’s harder for a right-wing populist party to emerge.” My follow-up questions – among them, a simple “Huh?” – remain unanswered. But I think he’s saying he loves his own data projections of the Trump coalition’s demographic doom.
Maybe sentimental patriotism sets in with age… I have a year on McElwee. Or it could be that reverential regard for our common past comes with experience. Even a one-man movement-maker like McElwee owes a large share of his success to his forebears. There would be no ascendant socialism for him to steer, for instance, if 86-year-old activist and political scientist Frances Fox Piven hadn’t helped found the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982.
Piven crafted voter registration reform in the first half of the Clinton administration and has since reemerged as a leader of the Sanders-fueled socialist resurgence. In the 1960s, she and her late husband Richard Cloward devised a platform that would vastly expand welfare benefits, and they decided the sole impetus for all meliorative policy was activist uprising. Their so-called Cloward-Piven formula – while still too radical for most liberals – has a growing body of adherents in the under-30 set, and still serves as a unifying bête noire for Republicans in disarray.
Piven, who was born in Canada but moved to Jackson Heights, Queens as a small child, must love America – at least as much as Bill Ayers, I reason – what with all the work she’s put into convincing its revolutionary fringes theirs is the best plan for the nation. As it happens, I’m wrong: “Attachment to abstractions like nation, flag, and the symbols of patriotism can lead to tragic delusions,” Piven told me, when I asked what in particular motivates the love – or so I thought – that propels her political activism.
“The ideological clap trap that builds on that attachment to create fanatical patriotism leads only to tragedy.”
The founders don’t deserve our admiration, she adds, proving Richard Painter right. Although “some of the founders might qualify as aspirational democrats,” they “never made amends, if amends are ever possible,” for the sin of slavery. “It is natural to have an emotional attachment to home,” she allows. “But the ideological clap trap that builds on that attachment to create fanatical patriotism leads only to tragedy.”
Patriotism, per Piven, is a delusion, a dangerous indulgence: “It’s not healthy,” she says, “to wax sentimental about origins, because it divides us from the rest of humanity.” At which point I feel a helpless swell of pity for her, my fellow human after all. And I have to wonder whether Piven, being Canadian by birth, isn’t perhaps a little jealous.
Nothing makes self-affirmed socialist and perennial democratic-socialist candidate Nomiki Konst love the land of plenty more than leaving it. When we talk, Konst is visiting family in Athens, where the far-left party fell out of favor when the Greek economy crumbled into a protracted fiscal torpor. In 2012, it went from parliament’s largest party to its smallest. Still now, the Greek debt crisis rumbles on.
Konst, a New Yorker, wanders the graffitied side streets missing her hometown storefronts. “I’m a bad socialist!” she jokes. “In New York, you walk right outside your door and you have access to everything, from the best Indian food outside of India to the best Thai food outside of Thailand.” In a turn toward the ideologically consistent, she then adds that Trumpian nationalism – “I consider it fascism,” Konst clarifies – puts America’s rich consumer-driven culture of culinary pluralism at risk. But then again, so might leaving the socialists in charge until they run out of other people’s money…
“This is where the socialism in me has to be questioned,” she admits, “because I’ve been conditioned to be able to have access to anything at any time.” In the Athenian neighborhood where she’s staying, every cafe has its quaint specialty, but none of them has whatever you want, all the time. “You throw a rock out your window in New York and hit whatever it is you need, like a vegan restaurant or a good pizza place,” says Konst, starting to sound fed up with feta.
It makes a strange sort of sense that the most genuinely affectionate answer should come from a homesick socialist on vacation in the debt-ridden bedrock of democracy. She’s talking about its food specifically, but Konst seems to speak for – and about – the whole country.
What’s to love? “It’s not only the best,” she says, in sum, “but there’s the most of it.”
Alice Lloyd is a writer in Washington, D.C.