Patriot or Not
November 23, 2019
I've been watching bits and pieces of the impeachment hearings (who hasn't?) this week, in between work tasks, and it's quite different from either the Nixon or the Clinton hearings. The latter was truly a farce over largely farcical and personal misconduct that should have just been handed to Hillary to deal with. (Yes, Clinton lied to Congress, but that's not what that was really about, was it? It was a foreshadowing of the mentality that's festered in the Republican Party to stay in power at all costs, even the loss of democracy.) Nixon's was far more shocking to a nation that still believed in itself, and it was clearly a criminal act, sprung from the paranoia of another Republican that mirrors the minority party's current paranoia.
T-Rump's hearing is different. The criminality is equally paranoid, and serves Republican paranoia about loss of power and a conspiracy of Others, but it's wrapped up in his own narcissism, attempts to be more subtle, and is more complex in nature than a break-in, as befits a second-rate, wannabe mob boss without a mob. Nice country you got here. Be a shame to lose it to the Russians. How about saying in public that you'll start an investigation of Joe Biden and his kid? We'll see what we can do for you. Jesus, the ineptitude. Of course, the denial of this kind of extortion only gets a pass when you propagate a distrust of the press and the career bureaucrats and diplomats who are the true professionals running the government. That distrust didn't exist during Clinton's or Nixon's hearings.
Which brings me to Dr. Fiona Hill and the decorated Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Immigrants both, serving their adopted country at the highest level and at the cost of personal injury in the latter's case. Vindman telling his father, scarred by Russia's methods of dealing with dissenters,
Dad, I’m sitting here today in the US Capitol talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union, come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.
Fiona Hill, daughter of coal miners in the north of England, insisting,
This is a country of immigrants. With the exception of very few people still here, everyone immigrated to the U.S. at some point in their family history. This is what, for me, really does make America great.
Both statements brought me to tears (admittedly, it doesn't take much), I think because I once felt this way myself when I was younger, and because it had to be a covert emotion. Roger Cohen writes in the Times about the ideas I've wrestled with since I was a child: an emotional love for the place where I was born, and disgust with the injustice it perpetrates, i.e., patriotism.
Let me give you a little of my background for context: On Dad's side, I'm a second-generation American. His folks emigrated from somewhere in Austro-Hungary (it was always a big secret, so I'm not sure where) and Dad was born here. Like Vindman, he joined the army (the Army-Air Corps then the Air Force) and fought in one of our wars (WWII), in his case, against people who spoke the same language his parents did (they were German-speaking Hungarians). Most of Mom's people, by contrast, have been here a very long time indeed, long enough to have left the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War to take up big land grants from King George in Canada. I'm not a Daughter of the American Revolution, but a Daughter of Union Empire Loyalists. At least one of the Canadians came back to the US to marry my Welsh-American Grandfather, whose family had been in Pennsylvania for a couple of generations, too. So I'm sort of the nexus of both aspects of American colonization and immigration: newcomer and founding colonialist. Add to this that as a Jehovah's Witness, I was supposed to not stand for the pledge (which I still don't; loyalty does not require pledges), not celebrate the 4th of July (boy that was tough in 1976), not vote, to have no loyalty but to God's Kingdom, and to be utterly neutral politically. Not just non-partisan; non-political.
That last one was a kicker. Politics and history, inextricably intertwined, were the number one topics of conversation in our house: Dad was a relentless FDR Dem; Mom, in a non-JW life, would have been even farther left. We supported unions, didn't cross picket lines. Dad voted fairly often and he and Mom always talked about who was running. Dad was also an inveterate writer of Letters to the Editor, mostly about politics and politicians, as well as local policy issues. Being retired WWII military and someone who got out when he saw what was happening in Vietnam informed a deeply ingrained sense of Honor and Right, the same kind Vindman exhibited and spoke about before Congress. You find this in a lot of career military people. They join up because of a real desire to Do the Right Thing, to give back and to serve in the only way they know how—with their lives. You see the same thing in many career diplomats and civil servants as well. They have a vision of a country and government that at least tries to Do the Right Thing, to make the world better, no matter how often or badly it fails, and they want to be part of that work.
It's no surprise Dad hated Nixon with a fiery hatred. I can only imagine what he'd say about T-Rump. There would be a lot of swearing. He hated Lieutenant Calley too, for sullying the uniform, so the recent pardoning of war criminals would result in much more swearing. He wasn't fond of the damn hippies, but he knew they were right about Vietnam, and supported their right to protest. Members of the KKK and the "goddamn John Birchers" were beneath his contempt. He was, nonetheless, ferocious in standing up for people's civil rights, especially if he didn't agree with them. "That's what I fought a war for," he'd say. Mom pretty much agreed with him, but extended her dislikes to most organized religion, except her own, fondly (and rather hilariously) quoting Marx's "religion is the opium of the people." She took any injustice in the world personally: racism, sexism, religious persecution, persecution by the religious, wage inequality, war—you name it, she hated it. I finally realized that the thing that appealed most to her about being a JW was the idea that Armageddon was a way to burn it all down and start over. I think she was really a thwarted Anarchist at heart.
Both my folks were outraged by injustice, for different reasons. But I always think of Dad as one of the most patriotic people I knew. He couldn't care less about the Pledge of Allegiance, or the flag or the visible trappings people sport. He was a reluctant respecter of authority, so God help you if you abused that authority. Dirty cops, dirty politicians, war criminals, there wasn't anybody he hated more. He was a little guy and the little guy you didn't piss on. If you wanted to burn the flag as a protest, he'd support that. Free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to dissent were deeply important to him, but he was a "work within the system" guy. Mom was the one who wanted to see it all burned down and replaced with something better.
So here I am, raised by a couple of shit-stirrers and closet radicals. All the while I was clinging to being a JW, I was frustrated by their inaction and "giving it up to god" attitude that said humans were incapable of fixing anything. I was most frustrated, finally, that the attitude included poverty and hunger, which we manifestly can fix. It took me leaving my religion to become a card-carrying, out lefty. I pined in secret to go to anti-war protests, and finally went to my first march in college, the No Nukes rally in DC in 1979. That makes me proud in a way being directly connected to American colonialist history doesn't. I've always been, like Mom, a dissenter, and demanding, like Dad, that we as a society Do the Right Thing. One thing I'd never call myself is a patriot.
I've never had a good definition of patriotism, and it's always been a semi-dirty word to me because of how often it's trotted out in support of something really vile. The line about fascism coming to America wrapped in a flag and carrying in cross, whether Sinclair Lewis said it or not, is chillingly true. We're watching it happen. Every time T-Rump says "Make America Great Again," he's personifying what's worst about patriots and patriotism. It so often the refuge of fools and scoundrels, to justify acts that benefit no one but themselves and their increasingly tiny interest group of old white men. In that sense, the Patriot Act is aptly named, because it negates, in the name of "safety," the rights that are codified in the Constitution for everyone.
This is part of what I wrestle with: the harm we've done and are still doing versus the good we try to do, the ideals we hold up and so often fail to uphold. I am heartened and touched by Vindman's belief that he will be okay telling the truth before Congress, even while the Army has had to relocate his family to a military base to keep them safe from the fucking Trump troglodyte MAGAites. It is still not the government coming after him and his family, as it would be in Russia, and that's what matters to him. I am heartened by the fact that Hill succeeded so well here when she couldn't because of the even more rampant classism in her country of birth, and touched that she decided to repay that opportunity by serving in the government. Her calling out of officials of the government she works for, right in public, in front of God, Country, and Everyone Else, to stop lying about Ukraine's meddling with the 2016 election—that's a patriotic act if ever there was one.
And while that self-serving prick Devin Nunes insults him by not recognizing his rank as a serving U.S. Army officer, Vindman reiterates his belief in the U.S.:
As Vindman’s testimony neared the end, Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from New York, asked the witness to reread the message he delivered to his father in his opening statement. He obliged....
“Why, then, do you have the confidence to “tell your dad not to worry?” Maloney asked.
“Congressman, because this is America,” he replied without hesitating. “This is the country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.”
Maybe that's what patriotism is in a democracy: the dogged insistence that morality and ethics matter, that Doing the Right Thing is our duty, not a part but all of what being an American is, even if it means holding your leaders' feet to the fire of accountability in public. Maybe especially that. And to have two recent immigrants do that shows how important immigration is to who we are. Cohen, in his opinion piece on Fiona Hill, writes,
This [that American is a nation of immigrants] is the very revolutionary American idea under attack from Trump and his Republican enablers and the Fox News fabulists. Make America Great Again is, in fact, Deny What America Is.
The people who come here from all over the world—even from places we've helped ravage like Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam—come here with a sense of hope and idealism that we born-here citizens often have lost. Look at the new crop of immigrants, and first and second generation Americans newly elected to Congress, how they're tearing it up. They're tearing it up because they believe in the system. And what they believe of the system is that it's supposed to work for all of us, not just Big Business, not just stinking rich people. They believe that government's main job is to take care of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable of us, to lift us up, to protect us from the predatory and the greedy, to give us equal opportunities to succeed and pursue happiness. It's what I still believe and demand but don't expect. That these people are working for it when their colleagues on both sides of the aisle (with some exceptions) are not only shows how much we need immigrants to renew our democracy. That kind of faith in the process can only come from the young and from people who have experienced far worse times than most American citizens have. When you come from war, or genocide, or desperate hand to mouth poverty, or a land savaged by climate change, or authoritarian government, America still looks like a haven and a promise. People like these are not what Thomas Paine called Sunshine Patriots. They become, instead, our Winter Soldiers.
And we need them because what's Right is grossly at odds with our practice of capitalism, which, unchecked and unregulated, is anything but Right. It's grossly at odds with the gospel of bootstrapping, as well. The idea that every person—regardless of skin color, sex, nation of origin, or any of the artificial labels we slap on each other—has a set of inalienable rights that a government cannot strip from you is the foundation of Right. Without getting into what the founders meant by "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," I think we're at least starting to accept the notion that the inalienable rights include the right to basic necessities, health care, and education, all of which are necessary to life and the pursuit of happiness. And you certainly don't have liberty without them. The freedom to starve, be homeless, and die young is not liberty.
And Right is grossly at odds with the two party system as it's in play now. Too many of the Democrats are in thrall to special interests and Money, especially when they call FDR's policies "radical left." And where to start with the Republicans? Where? Oh Lord. Let's just say, if you have to lie and cheat and allow others to break the law to stay in power, you are Wrong, not Right.
Sadly, we are currently being governed by the most Wrong administration ever, and opposing it is probably one of the most patriotic things we can do. I fear that our democratic experiment is failing and has been failing for a while now, a good part of my lifetime, every time we allowed money and/or power to matter more than people. And that experiment matters because people's lives matter. The whole point of civilization and government is to make people's lives better. Everything else is gravy.
So, patriot or not? If dissent is patriotic, then yes. If I need a flag for it, then no. Unless I can burn it.
Posted by: Roger Bell | November 23, 2019 at 05:44 PM