LIBERALS: TAKE BACK THE FLAG!
By Nick Gier
See also: Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers
Libertarianism and Christianity
We Are All Liberals
The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naďve and usually idiotic.
He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us,
and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched.
--H. L. Mencken
There are some which teach insane citizenship, bastard citizenship, but that is all.
Patriotism! Yes, but patriotism is usually the refuge of the scoundrel.
He is the man who talks the loudest.
-- Mark Twain
Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion
but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
--Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.
It was May Day, 1967, and I was doing my daily run around the national stadium in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I was completing my year as a Rotary Fellow. On the expansive lawns, celebrating the world’s most important leftist holiday, were thousands of Danish Communists, Socialists, and Social Democrats. It was a big year for them because the Social Democrats and Socialists had just formed the nation's first left-wing coalition government.
Something struck me about what many of these Danes had in their hands. For every bottle of beer, some of the best in the world, there were just as many small Danish flags. As an American I thought: “What a novel idea: patriots on the left.” But not so novel if you think of the two things that a right-wing American would understand: drinking a good brew and waving the flag.
This was not the first time I had noticed and admired Danish patriotism. At every major occasion–a birthday or a wedding–little flags are festooned everywhere and a big flag is flying in the yard. Danish homes, including the summer cottages, are not complete without a flag pole. The flag belongs to all Danes, not just one political faction.
The Danes claim that the Dannebrog, as the Danes call their flag, is the oldest in the world and that it came down from heaven during a crusade in Estonia in 1219. Today's Danes feel much more comfortable with their extensive UN peacekeeping duties rather than their ancient Viking reputation. Danish patriotism culminates in a fervent devotion to Queen Margrethe II, a Cambridge trained archaeologist and accomplished artist, whose coronation I witnessed in January of 1972 and whom even today I consider to be my queen.
Let us turn to another country. The Sri Lankan flag contains two stripes, green embracing the Muslims and orange integrating the Hindus, thus validating their Sinhalese identity in the Country of the Lion (Sinhala). Buddhist nationalists have removed these colors from their own flag as a clear warning to Sri Lankan Hindus, Muslims, and Christians that they are no longer welcome in their own country. For these folks the upraised sword in the lion’s paw takes on a much more ominous meaning.
Most Americans could not place Sri Lanka (let alone Idaho) on a map, but I still fear that some of our own nationalists might get wind of this. One might instruct his wife to sew a new American flag with all the Blue State stars removed, even though the Blues pay 71 percent of the taxes and the Reds, from 1991 to 2001, received $800 billion more in goods, services, and cash from the feds than they paid in taxes. During the same decade the Blues paid the feds $1.4 trillion.1
An even more perverted possibility actually happened at a recent retreat of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber head Paul Kimmell has neo-Confederate tendencies, and he gave a PowerPoint Presentation2 on Robert E. Lee in which the final slide was the Confederate flag (with 14 stars) given equal weight with the Union flag (with all 33 stars). The cultural dividehere is indeed great: In the 2004 election 39 states gave Kerry 1.5 million more votes than Bush, while 11 states (the heart of the Confederacy) gave 5 million more votes to Bush. The neo-Confederates are urging these states to withdraw from the Union and govern themselves according to strict Calvinist principles and a “whites first” policy.
The great English philosopher John Stuart Mill described this as a “vulgar” nationalism, “a senseless antipathy to foreigners; . . . a cherishing of bad peculiarities because they are national or a refusal to adopt what has been found good by other countries.”3 I don’t how many times I’ve dared to suggest that Europeans might have better solutions and received the response “Why don’t you just move there.” My response to the nationalist "Love It or Leave It" is always the patriotic "Change It or Lose It."
Speaking of colors, I just saw for the first time the bumper sticker “These Colors Do Not Run.” This is message is obviously a corollary to the slogan “Support Our Troops.” My first thought actually was a warning that we must not mix good European stock with other blood to make a rainbow flag! With only a few bad eggs, I believe that our military is the best in the world, but a true patriot would insist that we should not put these young lives in danger unless there is a direct threat to our country, at which time it would indeed be cowardly for us not to defend ourselves. But to invade a sovereign nation on the basis of “fixed” intelligence is bullying, and the opposite of bullying is respect nor retreat.
Buddhist and American nationalism are of course the exact opposite of true patriotism, which, like the Danes’ example, is inclusive and embracing rather than exclusive and dividing. Genuine patriots are loyal to their country's principles, not necessarily their government’s current policies. As Jim Hightower said recently: “Our democracy was forged in rebellion, crafted by mavericks and risk-takers who refused to salute authority. They rejected all autocrats who tried to suppress liberties in the name of providing security and order.”4 Naming homeland security legislation the "Patriot Act," one had threatens basic rights and freedoms, is an obscene irony.
American patriots should exercise their right to dissent and to resist the tyranny of a “moral majority.” They should also make common cause with countries that share the same liberal democratic principles, and they remain true to the treaties that they’ve made with them. Wise patriots would not be afraid to admit their country’s mistakes, and they would not make exceptionalist and patronizing claims about national destiny and obligation. God blesses all nations, not just the US.
True patriotism is not a narrow nationalism that goes its own way—“you are either with us or against us”--but one that embraces the UN charter, international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners.
Some critics say that the virtue of patriotism is obsolete in our new world culture. They claim that the nation state is by its nature dysfunctional, just as destructive as the atomistic self of which the modern state is a projection. Proclamations such as “Live Free Or Die” or “Don’t Tread On Me” give lie to the fundamental truth that human beings are social and relational.
When Martin Buber wrote that “there is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou,” he was rediscovering that Buddhists and Confucians already knew 2,500 years ago. The diplomatic equivalent is of course that there is no nation “taken in itself,” but one that it is an integral part of a world community. The primary Confucian virtue ren—meaning humaneness or benevolence—is a character composed of the glyphs person and the number two. Being truly human is “two peopleness.”
Some say that self-assertive nationalism is a product of patriarchy, and patriotism should be replaced by, as Elousie Bell calls it, “matriotism” whose loyalty would be to the largest community possible. As Virginia Woolf declared: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Bell and Native Americans propose that Mother Earth herself become the object of our devotion. For Native Americans patriotism has meant the destruction of their lands, their languages, and their cultures.
Daoists celebrate the Dao as feminine and their fellow Confucians promote a universal fellowship of all nations, but the Confucian Mencius was also correct in saying that love is, first and foremost, local and personal. It is only natural that we love those who are closest to us more than those far away. Confucian love is a graded love that starts with the family and spreads in concentric circles to the nation and then to the biosphere around us. Mencius joined Buddhists and Jains in acknowledging our moral obligations to animals.
Elouise Bell is wise to insist that her matriotism does not necessarily eliminate a personal love for country and for one’s own land. Following Mencius, my love for Gaia is necessarily personal and local. I’ve traveled extensively on four continents but there is nothing like the mountains, lakes, and rivers of the Pacific Northwest that I call my home. The Palouse Hills surrounding Moscow have become an extension of my body.
The liberals that should take back their flag have a long distinguished tradition that goes back to the American and French revolutions. Against the divine right of kings and caste society of classical conservatism, these “classical” liberals have always stood for liberty, equality, and community for all.
In a similar move the American Wiccan community propose that the French fraternite be translated as the virtue of cooperation. They quote the great classical liberal Ben Franklin: "If we don't hang together, we shall surely all hang separately." The Wiccans rightly emphasize that the origins of democratic and republican ideals are pagan not Christian.
Today’s libertarians put liberty first at the cost of both equality and community. Conservatives and liberals embrace all three with an emphasis on community and traditional values for conservatives and equality for today's liberals. Following the Danish example, we should all respect each other’s love for the classical liberal principles for which this nation stands “with liberty and justice for all.”
1. See John Sperling, The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro.
2. See www.tomandrodna.com/notonthepalouse under "Paul Kimmell Submits Robert E. Lee as a Leadership Model."
3. John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic (1843), Book VI, Chapter 10. I'm indebted to Georgios Varouxakis of Aston University for this reference and I highly recommend his article "Nationalism, Patriotism, and Liberalism: A Debate Revisited," Nations and Nationalism: Theory, Ethics, and Policy 11:1 (January, 2005).
4. Jim Hightower, "Wave Our Flag" (October 16, 2001) at http://www.purewatergazette.net/waveourflag.htm.