Our annual Fourth of July backyard barbecue this year was bigger and better than ever. We had our American flag flying on the front porch. Plenty of our guests showed up wearing red, white and blue – though their politics ranged from quite liberal Democrat to very radical way-to-the-left-of-Democrat. When we celebrate the Fourth at our home, no conservatives need apply.
Yet, we do celebrate. And when we go out to see the fireworks, we sit shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens, never asking them about their political views. It’s a safe bet that they run the gamut from extreme left to extreme right. But we all go “ooh” and “aah” together, as part of a single community.
This year, the Fourth got me thinking again about the question of national narrative, which George Lakoff raised in a recent column. He called for a narrative of empathy “as the basis of democracy and American values.” Rereading that piece, I found the word “patriotic” tucked away, just once, where Lakoff complained that Obama’s public discourse offers “no home run, no unifying narrative, no patriotic call to the nation on the full gamut of issues.” He’s right to complain. We need a leader who can deliver a persuasive, patriotic, progressive narrative to the masses.
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More importantly, though, we need lots of grassroots progressives speaking a language that can appeal to Americans who don’t yet share progressive values. Most of them won’t be deeply moved by any political story unless it comes across convincingly as an AMERICAN story. Look back at all the narratives that have shaped political life in the United States, from Jefferson and Hamilton to Bush and Obama. They’ve offered a variety of values, opinions and positions on the issue. But they’ve all appealed successfully to the widespread yearning for patriotism.
Today’s progressive movement, with its roots in the 1960s, is hampered by a fear of patriotism. Progressives are quick to recite all the philosophical arguments against dividing the world up into nation-states. And they are arguments worth listening to. But whether we like it or not, the world is divided into nation-states and it will be for the foreseeable future.
The United States is the most powerful of those nations and will remain among the most powerful for the foreseeable future. Its power will be wielded for good or ill by the people who control the national narrative. It makes no sense for progressives to give up control of that narrative and the power that it carries, without a struggle.
Progressives are also acutely aware of the sad history of this country, how we’ve used patriotism as an excuse for all sorts of shameful acts. And that’s a history we must remember. But precisely because patriotism has meant so many things to so many people in this country, it is entirely possible to transform the meaning of patriotism in just about any way we like. Imagine how different things would be now if the iconic image of the peace movement, inherited from the ’60s, was a huge mass of protesters in the streets, each one carrying an American flag.
How do we tie progressive positions on the issues together in a story that is simple (because any successful political narrative must be simple, as Lakoff has taught us) and patriotic, a story that feels profoundly American? How do we fight for control of the symbolic meaning of the flag and the story that it represents?
Empathy is certainly a good place to start. In the now-mythic old rural America, which still sets the tone for successful patriotic narratives, people staunchly guarded their individual freedom; they knew how to take care of themselves (or so the story goes). But even the most rugged individuals recognized that they needed their neighbors’ help from time to time. So, they took care of their neighbors, too. They cared about building up their community. That’s hard-core patriotic language in this country.
It goes back to the message of empathy that John Winthrop preached to the first Puritans journeying to the New World: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together … as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
The critical question progressives must be prepared to answer is the question over which so many Americans stumble: Exactly who is this “we”? Who is my neighbor? Just how far does this empathy thing extend?
Does our empathy extend to militant atheists as well as the most pious Christians? Does it extend to kids breaking into abandoned buildings to trade drugs, whether those kids are white or brown or black or yellow or red-skinned? What about people who are homeless, mentally ill and unable to get treatment? Or prisoners caught up in a legal maze they can’t even understand?
For conservatives and for many centrists, that may be asking too much. As I noted in an earlier response to Lakoff’s column, US political discourse has focused for many years on the quest for personal safety. And for most Americans, security comes from maintaining strict boundaries of many kinds. But they all boil down to the boundary between right and wrong, good and evil. To ask people to have empathy for others who are on the wrong side (as they see it) is asking a lot.
Even the 25 percent or so of Americans who identify as liberals may have a tough time extending their empathy that far. The difference is that liberals draw the boundaries a bit wider. They’ll usually include people of another skin color or sexual orientation, or those who are trapped in the cycle of poverty. But, eventually, even liberals will typically find a limit to their empathy and come face to face with that troubling question: Who is my neighbor?
My son used to listen to a children’s song that asked the crucial question in Spanish: Quien es mi vicina? That points up the toughest problem for a lot of Anglo-Americans, across the political spectrum (and it’s the Anglos who still wield most political power and must be won over if a progressive narrative is going to succeed).
They wonder: Is that family up the street, or the clerk at the local store, my neighbor, even though their children sing songs and hear bedtime stories in Spanish or Korean or Hindi or any of the other 100-and-some-odd languages now spoken in America? If so, what about their relatives back in Mexico or Korea or India, or wherever they came from? Are they my neighbors, too?
Even if we look only within our own borders, the global question is inescapable. The borders of our nation are products of rather arbitrary circumstances. That’s obvious in southern New Mexico or northern Maine. And why should Seattle be inside our borders, but Vancouver, virtually its twin city, outside?
Moreover, there have always been sections of most big American cities that felt like some other country. Once it was “little Italy” or “little Greece.” Now it may be “little Korea” or “little Havana,” “Chinatown” or “Japantown.” All these neighborhoods make you wonder whether national borders mean very much.
So do the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the products we use every day – most of which, for most of us, come from abroad. The “buy American” slogan may ring patriotic bells, but even the most ardent patriot will usually end up going for the bargain, especially since so many of those ardent patriots have seen little or no real gain in their purchasing power in decades.
America is inextricably embedded in a global neighborhood. And that makes the question all the more acute: Just how far can this empathy thing extend and still be patriotic? Once we starting looking around the globe, we must ask the most difficult questions of all. What about the Taliban and al-Qaeda and even Osama bin Laden himself? Are they, too, our neighbors?
The progressive answer must be “Yes.” Everyone, everywhere, is our neighbor, with no limits. That’s precisely what sets today’s progressive political agenda apart from the liberal as well as the conservative agendas – a willingness to show equal concern for the well-being of all humanity.
But America’s inextricable connection with every corner of the global neighborhood and everyone in it is nothing new. This nation grew from a handful of former colonies to the strongest economic power on earth precisely because it took in and traded with people from every corner. Globalism is, and has always been, as American as apple pie.
And that fact points toward the obvious solution of the progressive dilemma. We must propagate a narrative that says simply, “Empathy for everyone, without limit, has always been a central part of the American way. Now we must make it the essence of our patriotism.”
We can make it clear that progressive values are nurtured by a dream that is, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, “deeply rooted in the American dream.” We can adopt as our own the mission summed up in the motto of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “To save the soul of America.” But we should also embrace Dr. King’s teaching that our nation will flourish best when it shows “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.”
We must persuade Americans that it’s patriotic to extend John Winthrop’s call to “delight in each other” to every other person on earth. We must persuade them that when Lady Liberty reaches out to those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she reaches out to all humanity, everywhere. That’s the American way.
A progressive patriotism has to go even further, though. As Lakoff rightly said, a progressive narrative should focus on empathy not only for others in the present, but for “future generations [and] the sacredness of nature … caring for this incredible bounty that we have.” All species and all the elements of the whole planetary biosphere must be part of the network of mutual caring.
That caring, too, has always been part of the American way. The early Puritans, like so many immigrants to our shores, saw America as a vast and pure wilderness, an endless Garden of Eden to be cherished and enjoyed. It is patriotic to recognize that all are “members of the same body” as Winthrop put it.
Now, of course, progressives realize that our natural resources are not at all endless. It is up to us to care for and conserve them as we care for ourselves and our nearest loved ones. Environmental responsibility – the kind that gave birth to our national parks, the world’s first – must be part of the progressive patriotic narrative too.
As I write these words, I hear the kids up the street shooting off the leftover firecrackers from the Fourth of July just past. And I hope that progressives will start hearing new thoughts about patriotism popping up in their minds, new ways to embed a narrative of universal empathy in the traditional language of American patriotism. We’ve got plenty of resources in our national traditions to create that new kind of patriotic story.
If we can make it burst into US political discourse, we’ve got a chance to advance the progressive agenda. If we can’t offer a new story – if we can offer only a laundry list of policy proposals, unconnected by any unifying patriotic call on the full gamut of issues – we haven’t got much chance at all.