Patriotism, Power, and Realism

I’m a big fan of the 4th of July. Partly I think it might have to do with my hometown’s fixation with Americana. Canton, Michigan maintains a number of public parks, including Freedom Park, Independence Park, Heritage Park, and Victory Park. Oh, and our summer festival is called Liberty Fest. Our municipal overlords are really patriotic, apparently.

So on the 4th of July my mind wanders back to Liberty Fests of old. I remember watching fireworks and eating more hotdogs than polite company would care to hear about. (Upwards of a dozen, in case you’re really dying to know.)

But gratuitous exploding lights and gastrointestinal feats are just the 4th’s outer trappings. For most folks, the Fourth is really about celebrating abstractions–freedom, national pride, liberty. That the best way we know how to celebrate is by inhaling tubes of mystery meat is probably an indictment of our lack of social imagination, but you’ve gotta give us points for enthusiasm. For all of our ridiculous ways of wearing our patriotism on our sleeves, still the spirit remains. On the 4th of July the nation’s animating force, its collective soul, finds outward expression.

Our parades, cookouts, and firework shows function as ritual reaffirmations of our national mythology. Freedom, Liberty, and Justice for All. Democratic governance. Accountable Public Institutions. All handed down by our Founding Fathers–men who occupy the same place in American cultural imagination as Achilles did for the Greeks or King David for the Hebrews. We remember our forbearers and the ideas that they left us, and in so remembering we reinvigorate the story.

Personally, I’m really thankful for our nation and its story, and I’d like to see it continue into the future. But for that to happen, our national mythology needs to be put into conversation with our national reality. It’s important to be honest about the nature of power, ideology, and social morality, because otherwise our best ideas will remain ideas rather than realities.

Some of my friends and favorite bloggers have been passing around a speech by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass titled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” I recommend giving it a read. The point, though, should be obvious. The “all” in Freedom, Liberty and Justice for All has traditionally been interpreted pretty, uhm, creatively.

It’s not just a matter of an ideological inconsistency. It is not as if Freedom, Liberty, and Justice for All has always been our driving principle but that we’ve just so happened to come up short some of (probably all of) the time. What Frederick Douglass was observing something a lot more basic about power and public morality. Namely, that people take power because they want to hold power. Generally, moral justifications are secondary; they’re used to legitimize regimes of power ex post facto. This is not to say that the Founding Fathers weren’t guided by their ideals in some sense. What I mean to say is that, had they been guided exclusively by their ideals, then they likely would have never seized power away from the British.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. made an observation that seems pretty universally true. All nations, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), make decisions based on self-interest and justify them with morality. Despite their status as demigods, it was true of the Founding Fathers just as it was for political elites at any other time in history.

The United States has taken a lot of steps towards expanding the effective definition of “all” when it comes to Freedom, Liberty, and Justice for All, but what’s important to realize is that the moral indignation and political force that allow such changes never stem from the center of power. It was true of abolitionist efforts, the women’s rights movement, and the civil rights movement. It’s true currently with any push for justice you can think of. What we ought to realize (I think) in celebrating the 4th of July is that there’s a necessary tension between holding up our ideals and holding up the stalwarts of a political system that failed to implement them.

We’ll do well to remember it throughout the rest of the year, too, because powerful people are always invoking morality to justify their power. You’re right to feel skeptical when multi-billion dollar companies tell you they’re spending advocacy money in the interest of “economic liberty.”

Remember Isaiah Berlin: “Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.”


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