Only by helping create the change that makes liberty and equality possible can I feel patriotic.
“A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle, and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” — George William Curtis, 19th Century writer and editor of Harper‘s
“Our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance. It is also owed to justice and to humanity. Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.” — James Bryce, British Member of Parliament and Ambassador to the U.S
I’m not sure when I began to feel patriotic about this country. From the age of 10, when I began learning about the history of mistreatment of “Negroes,” it was impossible for me to feel pride and love for a country whose government allowed and encouraged the enslavement of some people followed by massive discrimination against those same people.
Later, I learned about the destruction and subjugation of “Indians” in numbers rightly called genocide. Later, I found out about discrimination against others due to their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, and their birth into the poor and working classes that pushes them into multiple forms of impoverishment.
The Constitution was written by wealthy white men to benefit mercantile capitalism.
The patriotism I now feel for my country has little to do with what this nation has become in the 243 years since its exceptional declaration condemning King George. Instead, it is based on some of the values and ideals that underlie that declaration, and are incorporated in it. While I realize that the Constitution was written by mostly wealthy white men to benefit mercantile capitalism and prevent pure democracy, it also was given birth by some important values that support the interests of all people.
According to our founding declaration, governments are instituted among people to secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for those same people. This stated purpose led to collective actions through local, state, and federal governments that grew out of those founding sentiments. Those collective actions created highways and roads; parks with an array of amenities; land preserves; lakes and dams; sewer systems and water systems; recreation facilities; libraries; fire and police departments; cemeteries; waste collection systems; public schools, colleges, and universities.
Eventually, it led to protecting our fisheries with robust government regulation and enforcement that aimed to preserve the commercial, sport, and recreational fishing industries; and supported flood control and flood assistance, along with other natural disaster aid.
The collective actions of the governments we created led also to protecting endangered species; creating and supporting the Social Security system, Medicare, and Medicaid; managing a judicial system; protecting communities through zoning and other land use regulations; controlling the use of motor vehicles; enforcing air quality regulation; and protecting our land and waterways from contamination.
People support these governmental functions because they accomplish common purposes.
People support all (or at least most) of these governmental functions because they accomplish common purposes that cannot be readily achieved by individuals on their own. Even though we hear a lot of negative talk from some about overregulation, a certain amount of regulation is necessary for the common good. Otherwise, unscrupulous and greedy people would gladly bespoil our lives for their own financial benefit, something that has happened all too frequently in spite of our efforts at protecting against such harms.
Those who contend that Americans oppose too much government fail to consider that citizens have created their governments to take actions for our collective benefit. Not everyone agrees with all of the actions, but we can participate in making and changing them. To have a voice in the nature and character of those actions, some of us become public officials; some of us actively monitor what our collective endeavors accomplish; others press public officials for changes in the actions. And almost all of us support these collective endeavors through the taxes and fees we pay to operate all levels of our government.
Such collective action is neither right-wing, left-wing, nor moderate. It is the essence of our way of life. The disagreements among us concern whether one of our proposed collective endeavors should be done by one level of our government, left to private action, or abandoned. When a collective response is chosen, usually by our elected representatives or their appointees, the disagreements concern how best to accomplish the collective goal we are pursuing.
There can be no life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness without appropriate medical care.
Now, for example, we argue about whether the government’s role in health care should be expanded to offer more Americans the choice that those 65 years of age and older have when they use Medicare. Having such a choice is as natural as providing a wide range of health services to veterans of all ages and their dependents through the Veterans Administration. For most of us there can be no life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness without appropriate medical care.
But our governments can be manipulated by the few, usually the wealthy, to serve their interests rather than the common good. That is how and why, recently, our federal government supported tax legislation that benefits primarily the moneyed interests, who need no help amassing more wealth.
The wealth inequities that exist are of longstanding, and they did not change for the wealthy in spite of the New Deal and the Great Society gains for the poor. Whatever good those initiatives did, they did not negatively affect the wealthy, who continue to hold virtually complete control of the means of wealth production and maintenance. Yet most of the wealthy and their corporations hold tightly to the reins of power and exercise it, leaving the mass of American workers and families without even middle class lives.
I remain cynical about our ability to overcome the wealthy interests.
For good reason, I remain cynical about our ability to overcome the wealthy interests that use the commons (the goods, services, and infrastructure we created together) to build their wealth, but think they are self-made, brilliant even, never acknowledging the essential role that the commons has made to their success. This is true of corporations as well as individuals. Walmart, for example, appears to be based on a business model that pays many employees so poorly that they qualify for food assistance and other social services, which Walmart directs them to, while the Walton heirs make billions of dollars each year off their workers’ labor and the commons.
Walmart is merely one example of economic dysfunction and exploitation that affects farmers, laborers, and the poor generally. Over our history, voluntary associations (unions, cooperative businesses, credit unions, nonprofit organizations, etc.) have ameliorated many inequities in our society created by the wealthy and their corporations, but without causing basic reform in our governments.
In spite of the collective actions we have taken domestically, and the improvements we have made over nearly two and a half centuries, my patriotism is challenged by the negative role that we have played around the world in efforts to compel other countries to bend to our will (often for economic and commercial purposes), especially since the end of World War II, all of which I have observed personally.
Long before Russia interfered in our 2016 election, the U.S. had done so many dozens of times in other countries. Rather than recount some of the incidents, I point you to the recent article on the subject by Tom Englehardt at TomDispatch.com. A more complete list of U.S. interventions since 1798 can be found at the Global Policy Forum. The continuous military and clandestine interventions of the past seven decades have caused an explosion of expenditures for the military-industrial complex, made possible by the acquiescence of Congress.
This level of militarism and intervention is contrary to the ideals held by our founders.
This level of militarism and intervention is contrary to the ideals held by our founders and is contrary to what I know about most people I have encountered in my life. People who are normally peaceful and loving in their relationships with others seem completely detached from the effects of their government’s policies. What our government does, it does in our names. I can’t be silent about that out of fear that some people will decide that I am not being patriotic. The harm done both to our troops and the people in the countries where we intervene is too enormous to ignore these actions, which are callous, authoritarian, and contrary to our purported values.
My patriotism is challenged, also, by the level of corruption found in the actions of some government officials. Minority citizens are at greater risk of deadly encounters with law enforcement than are whites, though police misconduct can affect us all. Clandestine activities by law enforcement — federal, state, and local — endanger the lawful activities of many people who engage in efforts to protect others, as is happening currently in law enforcement efforts to thwart good samaritans who try to prevent the deaths of undocumented immigrants from dehydration as they cross through our southern deserts. And the intentional mistreatment of asylum seekers by Customs and Border Protection is both contrary to international law and inhumane.
In another sphere, our judicial system is riddled with judges who are so closely aligned with law enforcement that one district judge once confessed to me that he couldn’t rule against the testimony of a police officer even when the testimony was highly suspect. These judges are assiduously courted and befriended by the police and prosecutors, who consider them an extension of law enforcement. On balance, though, my 40 years’ experience as an attorney suggests that most of the judges before whom I appeared gave my clients a fair adjudication of their cases. The exceptions are the ones I remember most vividly.
Those who care about the country continue to try to make it better.
Clearly, we have not created a perfect system of governance, nor is our economic system fair or balanced, but those who care about the country continue to try to make it better. At some point, I realized that the only way I could feel some degree of patriotism for my country was if I worked with others to change my country to be more in line with its stated values and ideals. I have learned that only by helping create the change that makes liberty and equality possible can I feel patriotic.
But my patriotism has been further challenged by our continuing inability to make right the sins of our forebears, namely slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath, which continues to this day; the mistreatment and maltreatment of the indigenous inhabitants that were found in what became North America, an endeavor that began with the genocide of the Arawaks of Hispaniola by Columbus beginning in 1492; the second-class citizenship afforded women and the discrimination they continue to endure; the mistreatment of indentured servants, especially by the judicial system, which favored their owners, who often bought them at auctions much like slave auctions; the abuse of Chinese workers and what should have been the unconstitutional mistreatment of Japanese-Americans and other immigrants throughout our history; and the discrimination against other minorities because of their sexual orientation or identity, their ethnicity, their religion, their nationality, or their refugee status.
It is understood by many, if not most, non-wealthy people that this land has been controlled and dominated by elites since colonial times, and continued in more systematic ways after the Revolution. Rebellions and uprisings against this control and dominance have sometimes had limited success — sometimes great success — making important gains for non-elites.
But such successes are seldom, if ever, maintained forever. The financial and economic protections of the Glass-Steagal law, for instance, lasted 60 years before being overturned to benefit the banks and their consorts, the very groups that were meant to be controlled by the law. And Social Security, begun in the 1930s, is under constant attack by extreme right-wingers who believe we should have no collective programs to provide minimal benefits to older adults and the disabled. Eternal vigilance is, indeed, the price of liberty.
The history of America is a story of struggle for equality, fairness, justice, and freedom.
The history of America is a story of constant struggle for equality, fairness, justice, and freedom. Among the four freedoms identified by FDR in 1941, the two that have most escaped resolution are the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.
Still, I am patriotic in part because of the potential that remains in this country to reform, rejuvenate, improve, and hold itself accountable for its sins. My patriotism depends on the ability of this country to continue to make meaningful social, economic, and cultural progress. When we cease to make such progress, there will be no basis for patriotism, and this country will be dead even if it continues to celebrate July 4th each year.
I hope for more progress for the sake of my granddaughter and all of the others who live in what we have called the “land of the free and home of the brave,” whose greatest contribution to all people may be the right to speak freely, without fear of dungeon or death from the government. Indeed, without the right of free speech, nothing else would matter.
[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, City Attorney, is retired and volunteers with the Final Exit Network as a coordinator for people in seven states and serves as editor, contributor, and moderator of The Good Death Society Blog, which discusses a wide range of end-of-life issues.
- Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.