How Bruce Springsteen – and the left – can reclaim and cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism
The American flag has become a symbol of right-wing politics. Democrats can insist otherwise, but honest observers will concede that when they see a house, vehicle, or wardrobe adorned with the stars and stripes, it probably belongs to an American whose conception of patriotism allows everyone to have easy access to a firearm arsenal, but medicine to remain a high-priced luxury item.
The success of the right wing in their co-optation of patriotic language and symbols reached its absurd zenith on Jan. 6 when a mob of domestic terrorists proudly waved the flag and chanted, "USA!" before assaulting police officers and attempting to murder elected officials in their aspiration to replace American democracy with a dynastic dictatorship.
Beyond the ignorance of the Trump insurrectionists, it is essential for the left to evaluate how the far right monopolized patriotism and the hallmarks of Americana without much difficulty. The left has always demonstrated a healthy aversion to displays of national pride. Understanding the manipulative power of the flag, and that maudlin tributes to "God and country" typically shadow the ongoing injustices that take place under their invocation, progressives have largely neglected to offer a counterargument to operationally anti-American pundits and politicians who personify the words of Jewish activist and journalist James Wise, often misattributed to Sinclar Lewis: "If fascism comes to America . . . it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty."
Despite a justifiable reticence surrounding pious displays of American pride, the left has made a critical error by not forcefully confronting the right's self-serving, deceitful, and hateful brand of chauvinism. Most Americans – left, right, and apolitical – desire to feel some affection toward their country, especially considering that people have the tendency to associate their own community with their country, distilling the abstract "America" into the concrete hometown of their youth.
The late philosopher Richard Rorty brilliantly describes the contradictions of patriotism, and the self-inflicted wound of the left in refusing to cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism, in his prescient collection of lectures, "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America." Rorty begins with the assertion that "National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement."
"Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself," Rorty argues, "need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of." The right wing is clearly childlike and delusional in its familiar refrain that any denunciation of American policy or history is tantamount to treason, but Rorty insists that by only associating patriotism with atrocity and oppression, the left disarms itself in debates about the identity of the country, and how best to advance a national construct that makes words like "liberty and justice for all" actionable and real. Rorty devotes most of his search for edifying patriotism to the beautiful and magisterial poetry of Walt Whitman, wisely celebrating the American bard's tributes to democracy, paeans to the working class, and lyrical advancement of the idea that the "password primeval" of America is in the voices of the "diseased, despairing, those whose rights others are down upon."
In democratic practice, Martin Luther King famously argued that the civil rights movement was an effort to cash the "promissory note" of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. When I asked Jesse Jackson, who was one of King's aides, about the common sight of American flags at voting rights marches and Black freedom rallies in the 1960s, he said, "We used the flag and the cross for equality and justice. We made a convincing case that we represented a true form of patriotism because we had the Constitution on our side."
The poetry of Whitman, and the leadership of King and Jackson offer insight into the distinction that the British poet and pamphleteer, Samuel Johnson, made in his essay on patriotism. Famous for the warning, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," Johnson wasn't condemning natural feelings of affection for one's country, but in his time and place, scoundrels like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, who are "self-professed patriots," more concerned with their own power and profit than any abiding sense of national prosperity or unity. "True patriotism," Johnson declared, is not only possible, but important.
In recent years, as Trump invoked the flag to encourage hostility toward Black people, immigrants, and Muslims, and actually hugged and kissed the flag in a bizarre psychosexual display at a rally, more thoughtful and compassionate cultural figures have attempted to express "true patriotism" in rebuttal to "self-professed patriotism."
No musician has a more all-American image than Bruce Springsteen. Committed to progressive causes since the late 1970s, he has consistently used his music to spotlight injustice, and as he puts it with no small measure of modesty, "measure the distance between the American reality and ideal." The widespread misinterpretation of "Born in the USA," for which he was partially responsible, is infamous, but the song itself is one of the most powerful explorations of an unjust war and societal neglect of working class veterans.
In the past few months, Springsteen has made a concerted effort to communicate with his own predominantly white, Baby Boomer audience, seemingly with the awareness that many of his fans voted for Trump. First, there was a grievously ill-advised Super Bowl commercial for Jeep in which the rock and roll legend drives around a small town in Kansas in search of a chapel located at the geographic middle of the continental United States. While wearing a cowboy hat and impersonating Clint Eastwood, Springsteen suggests that Americans of diametrically opposed ideologies "find the middle." He offers no indication of how any Americans, irrespective of political persuasion, can find unity with the Trump cult that has not only rejected the possibility of compromise, but also empirical reality.
Even more bothersome in terms of content is the replication of the imagery of Christian nationalism that is central to the far right fascist movement. Halfway into the Jeep ad, the camera zooms in on a cross hanging over a red, white, and blue map of the United States. Where this leaves Jews, Muslims, atheists and others who do not identify patriotism with Christianity is out of the realm of discussion. One should not expect too much from a multinational corporation making a major contribution to the climate crisis. It is disappointing at this late stage of his career, that Springsteen would shill for big business, breaking a record of integrity that dates back to when he rejected Chrysler's multimillion dollar offer of appear in one of their ads in the 1980s.
Springsteen's investment in his own heroic myth seems to motivate his other recent attempt at rescuing patriotism from the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic sewer of right wing outrage. Together with his friend, former president Barack Obama, he has launched a podcast, "Renegades: Born in the USA." The two eloquent speakers explore American identity, race, and masculinity throughout the eight episodes of the series, but they do so in constant reference to themselves. They make a fine argument for social liberalism, and as the title would suggest, attempt to identify patriotism with diversity, acceptance of outsiders, and hospitality for those who are unconventional, but the larger message is lost in their unabashed egomania.
During the first episode, Springsteen declares "My Hometown," his 1985 hit about communal conflict and loyalty, a "great song," and in the second episode, speaks at length about the "power of the idealism of the E Street Band." Not to let his friend outdo him, Obama, without any hesitation, offers as conclusion to part one, "People often ask me, 'What is your favorite speech'?" Then, proceeds to name one of his own speeches, and recite it verbatim.
The natural question in response to such self-aggrandizement is "why?" Why is a former president squandering his authority and influence on a meandering podcast about his youth, and in the words of the Springsteen song, "boring stories of glory days?"
It would appear that Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are coequal partners in the icon business. Believing that they can use their iconography to the advantage of liberalism, they are attempting to present their own stories as patriotic myths. As the banality of the podcast would illustrate, it is a poor political project; doomed to fail with anyone who does not already adore both the former president and rock and roll legend.
The mission to become living and breathing icons is particularly fraught in an age of iconoclasm. In San Francisco, Chicago, and cities across the country there are various campaigns to rename schools and public buildings currently christened to honor everyone from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln. There is an opposition to the traditional icons of patriotism emanating out of a new focus on the injustices that they either ordered or observed without intervention. Indiscriminate slaughter of sacred cows also seems like poor politics, destined to alienate even those sympathetic with reinterpretations of American history. The campaign to, for example, remove a statue of Abraham Lincoln from a Chicago city park not only offers a narrow and boringly pious vision of history, but also further surrenders patriotism to the far right. If the left announces, "We don't want Lincoln," intentionally or not, they gift the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the president who saved the Union, to right wing demagogues.
Howard Zinn, the brilliant historian and activist, once rebuffed a question about whether his classic exploration of U.S. history through popular movements, "A People's History of the United States," would influence young students to dislike their own country, and deprive them of patriotic heroes who could inspire them to strive to improve the conditions of their country. Zinn's response offers instruction to those who, like Rorty, are concerned about the future of critical patriotism on the left.
We should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes. Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain — well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don't learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren't told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. No.
We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. And I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, you know, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But people don't learn in school . . . that Helen Keller was a socialist. She was a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.
And so, there are these alternate heroes in American history. There's Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. There are the heroes of the civil rights movement. There are a lot of people who are obscure, who are not known. We have a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. And that was before Rosa Parks. I mean, Rosa Parks is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested, and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and really the beginning of a great movement in the South. But this 15-year-old girl did it first. And so, we have a lot of — we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people back into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, "This is the way to live."
The crucial insight that Zinn offers is that patriotism should spotlight virtuous behavior in service to justice within a shared community. Richard Rorty interprets Whitman according to that definition, and there are living artists who have employed their creativity in the discovery of ways to celebrate what is unique and good about America, without ignoring or lying about what is unjust and oppressive.
Like Zinn, the poet Rita Dove locates patriotic profundity in the life of Rosa Parks. Her 1999 collection of poems, "On the Bus with Rosa Parks," makes the heroic activism of Parks central to American life. The bus not only rides through Montgomery, but all of American history, offering an invitation to anyone who would like to help push the passenger vehicle closer toward freedom, justice, and equality.
"Pull the cord a stop too soon," Dove lyricizes, "And you'll find yourself walking a gauntlet of stares." The immediate impression is that she is describing the inhospitable response, possibly even violent, a Black American will receive in the "wrong" neighborhood, but the perspective soon widens to include the assassination of advocates for civil rights, and how those deaths continue to haunt American history: "Dallas playing its mistake over and over/ until even that sad reel won't stay stuck – there's still / Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis / at every corner the same / scorched brick, darkened windows."
Dove advances an idea of patriotism that demands movement and insists upon forward progress. In her poem, "American Smooth," she not only pays tribute to the multicultural tapestry of American music, but also compares its sociopolitical life to a couple on the dance floor, finding its rhythm, continuing to dance to the sounds that surround them. The only error, Dove seems to warn, is to stop.
As she herself implies with reference to the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, tragedies and atrocities often leave mourners no choice but to stop, and in their pause, reflect on the gravity of the loss.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were many tributes to the victims, especially the firefighters and first responders who risked their own safety to save the lives of strangers. Martin Espada offers one of the most beautiful memorials of Sept. 11 in his poem, "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100."
It is dedicated to the 43 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees 100 who died while working at the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. Espada describes the wide range of countries where these workers – the dishwashers, the cook, the busboy – travelled from to make their home in America. With homage to Whitman's poem, "I Hear America Singing," he praises the majestic and soulful music of their labor, their voices, and their harmonious presence.
Espada ends the poem with the imagery of war – "from Manhattan and Kabul" – and provides a dark, but profound insight into the separation between power and the people who are so often the victims of those who exercise it.
Patriotism, like any feeling of affection, is only as useful as its ability to assist in the alleviation of human suffering, and the flourishing of human potential. In that respect, it is a localized iteration of compassion and justice, calling upon the best traditions of a particular country.
A pandemic should have activated this form of patriotism throughout the United States, but the scoundrels most eager to wave the flag have little interest in helping the people who live underneath it.
An entire set of policies – from voting rights to universal health care – should emerge out of the patriotic instinct. Otherwise, all the red, white, and blue gestures are nothing more than symbolism that is both empty and obfuscating. As John Prine sang in 1971 with eternal relevance:
Well, I got my window shield so filled
With flags I couldn't see.
So, I ran the car upside a curb
And right into a tree.
By the time they got a doctor down
I was already dead.
And I'll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said...
"Your flag decal won't get you
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