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The Best Dissent Has Never Been Anti-American

By Michael Kazin

Sunday, February 9, 2003; Page B03

As the U.S. military prepares for war, millions of Americans are seeking a way to stop it. Hundreds of thousands of them have attended national demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco. Local protest — on campuses, in churches and by labor union members — is broader and louder than at any time since the Vietnam War, more than three decades ago. Most Democrats running for president, eager to keep step with the party’s base, have warned the White House against rushing into war.

But the American left, the natural vehicle for opponents of imperial overreach, remains a tiny persuasion — and a sharply divided one at that. The organizers of the recent Washington and San Francisco marches refuse to say anything critical of Saddam Hussein; many belong to the Workers World Party, whose stated goal is “solidarity of all the workers and oppressed against this criminal imperialist system.” That viewpoint dismays liberals such as philosopher and editor Michael Walzer, who calls for a “decent” left that would never apologize for tyrants. But whatever their views on Iraq, no one in the current peace movement has put forth a moral vision that might unite and sustain it beyond the precipice of war.

Progressives once had such a vision, and they derived it from unimpeachable sources — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They articulated American ideals — of social equality, individual liberty and grass-roots democracy — and accused governing elites of betraying them in practice. Through most of U.S. history, this brand of patriotism was indispensable to the cause of social change. It made the protests and rebellions of leftists comprehensible to their fellow citizens and helped inscribe those movements within a common national narrative.

Thomas Paine, born in England, praised his adopted homeland as an “asylum for mankind” — which gave him a forum to denounce regressive taxes and propose free public education. Elizabeth Cady Stanton co-authored a “Declaration of Rights of Women” on the centennial of the Declaration of Independence and argued that denying the vote to women was a violation of the 14th Amendment. The Populists vowed to “restore the Government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’ with which class it originated” through such methods as an eight-hour day and nationalization of the railroads. In the 1930s, sit-down strikers proudly carried American flags into the auto plants they occupied and announced that they were battling for “industrial democracy.” Twenty years later, Martin Luther King Jr. told his fellow bus boycotters, “If we are wrong — the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong” and proclaimed that “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”

One could list analogous statements from pioneering reformers such as Jane Addams and Betty Friedan, industrial unionists John L. Lewis and Cesar Chavez, and the gay liberationist Harvey Milk. Without patriotic appeals, the great social movements that weakened inequalities of class, gender and race in the United States — and spread their message around the world — never would have gotten off the ground.

A self-critical sense of patriotism also led activists on the left to oppose their nation’s expansionist policies abroad. At the end of the 19th century, anti-imperialists opposed the conquest of the Philippines by invoking the words of Thomas Jefferson and comparing President William McKinley to King George III. Foes of U.S. intervention in World War I demanded to know why Americans should die to defend European monarchs and their colonies in Africa and Asia. When Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam War, he explained simply, “I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world.”

It’s difficult to think of any American radical or reformer who repudiated the national belief system and still had a major impact on U.S. politics and policy. The movement against the Vietnam War did include activists who preferred the Vietcong flag to the American one — and a few star-spangled banners were actually torched. But the antiwar insurgency grew powerful only toward the end of the 1960s, when it drew in people who looked for leadership to such liberal patriots as King, Walter Reuther and Eugene McCarthy rather than to Abbie Hoffman and the Weathermen.

Since then, however, many on the left have viewed national ideals as fatally compromised by the racism of the founders and the jingoism of flag-waving conservatives. Noam Chomsky derisively describes patriotism as the governing elite’s way of telling its subjects, “You shut up and be obedient, and I’ll relentlessly advance my own interests.” Protesters against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank echo Malcolm X’s description of himself as a “victim of Americanism” who could see no “American dream,” only “an American nightmare.” For such activists, fierce love for one’s identity group — whether black, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay or lesbian — often seems morally superior to devotion to a nation that long tolerated that group’s exclusion or abuse.

Progressives have certainly had some cause to be wary of those who invoke patriotism. After World War II, “Americanism” seemed to become the property of the American Legion, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI. In the 1960s, liberal presidents bullied their way into Indochina in the name of what Lyndon Johnson called “the principle for which our ancestors fought in the valleys of Pennsylvania.” On the contemporary right, popular talk-show hosts routinely equate a principled opposition to war with a “hatred” for America.

Yet the left’s cynical attitude toward Americanism has been a terrible mistake. Having abandoned their defense of national ideals, progressives also lost the ability to pose convincing alternatives for the nation as a whole. They could take credit for helping to reduce the sadism of our culture toward homosexuals and racial minorities. But the right set the political agenda, in part because its activists were willing to speak forcefully in the name of American principles that knit together disparate groups — such as anti-union businessmen, white evangelicals and Jewish neo-conservatives — for mutual ends.

When progressives abandoned that vision at the end of the ’60s, they lost something precious and necessary. The left could no longer speak convincingly to individuals and groups who did not share its iconoclastic assumptions. The economic interests of many of those “Middle Americans” whom Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan lured to the GOP clashed with those of the pro-business right. But the left’s grammar of protest, with its emphasis on rights for distinct and separate groups, failed to mobilize an aggrieved majority.

On the Mall last month, some protesters carried signs that read “Peace Is Patriotic.” If the left hopes to become more than an occasional set of demonstrators and grow, once again, into a mass movement, it will have to build on that sentiment and elaborate the wisdom behind it.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the stakes have been raised. Even if war against terrorism and against Iraq doesn’t continue to overshadow all other issues, it will inevitably force activists to clarify how they would achieve security, for individuals and the nation. How can one seriously engage in this conversation about protecting America if the nation holds no privileged place in one’s heart? Without empathy for one’s neighbors, politics becomes a cold, censorious enterprise indeed.

Progressives should again claim, without pretense or apology, an honorable place in the long tradition of those who demanded that American ideals apply to all and opposed the efforts of those, from whatever quarter, who tried to reserve them for privileged groups and ignoble causes. When the attorney general denies the right of counsel to a citizen accused of terrorism or a CEO cooks the books and fires workers who take him to task, they ought to be put on the defensive — for acting in un-American ways. A left that scorns the very notion of patriotism is wasting a splendid opportunity to pose a serious alternative to the arrogant, blundering policies of the current administration and its political allies. Now, as throughout its history, the most effective way to love our country is to fight like hell to change it.

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. His latest book, co-authored with Maurice Isserman, is “America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s” (Oxford University Press).

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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