WHOSE LAND IS IT, ANWAY?
A SHORTER VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN
This land is your
This land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me
-- Woody Guthrie
Before September 11, patriotism
wasn't doing all that well. You might have noticed it at the
ballpark, as the "Star Spangled Banner" was turned
into a novelty number and the guy next to you continued munching
on his hot dog as you stood at attention. Less obvious, however,
was that in the media and the nation's talk it just didn't seem
to matter that much.
One reason was that learning
about the country and its values had been widely displaced in
school by things like driver, drug, and sex education. Social
studies, history, and civic education were in decline as we taught
our kids how to behave as individuals rather than how to be part
of a community.
Immigrants didn't get
much help either, as neither of the two great acculturating institutions
of the past - the church and the political machines - held the
influence they once had.
Richard Croker, a tough
19th century county boss of Tammany Hall, had grown almost lyrical
when he spoke of his party's duty to immigrants:
"They do not speak
our language, they do not know our laws, they are the raw material
with which we have to build up the state . . . There is no denying
the service which Tammany has rendered to the republic. There
is no such organization for taking hold of the untrained, friendless
man and converting him into a citizen. Who else would do it if
we did not? . . . [Tammany] looks after them for the sake of
their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of
Alexander B. Callow Jr.
of the University of California has written that Boston pol Martin
Lomansey even met every new immigrant ship and "helped the
newcomers find lodging or guided them to relatives. James Michael
Curley set up nationalization classes to prepare newcomers for
the citizenship examination . . . Friendly judges, anticipating
election day, converted their courts into naturalization mills,
grinding out a thousand new Americans a day. . . . Flags were
waved, prose turned purple, celebrations were wild on national
holidays. . . . Patriotism became a means for the newcomer to
prove himself worthy."
But there was a darker
side, one that often comes to the fore when patriotism is prominent:
"Enemies of the organization and reformers in general were
identified as opponents of true patriotism and American ideals."
Like other isms, patriotism is easily driven more by hatred of
the Other than by positive love of one's own. This is why Osama
bin Laden, the KKK, and various movements of American nationalism
have typically recruited from among society's weakest and most
Today, immigrants, like
other Americans, are far more likely to learn their civics from
TV - the main source of news of three-quarters of the public
- than from a ward boss, priest, or teacher. The results make
Tammany Hall look good. For example, a 1998 poll found that while
three-quarters of all teenagers knew the zip code for Beverly
Hills, only 25% could name the city in which the Constitution
was written. Ninety percent could identify Tim Allen as the star
of "Home Improvement" but only 2% knew that William
Rehnquist was the Chief Justice. And it's not getting better;
just recently the Boston Globe reported that MTV has begun playing
excerpts of videos because when they play the whole thing - all
three and a half minutes - ratings start to go down.
It is worth noting that
those pols who "grafted immigrants upon the Republic"
were all Democrats. They saw no conflict between their love of
country and an economic populism so radical it would ban them
from today's C-SPAN. To them, the palaces of the Morgans and
Carneigies were not the same as the place called America. Americans
had not yet been indoctrinated into the false notion that the
revolution was fought to let corporations do whatever they want.
And Democrats had not yet turned over bragging rights for faith,
family, and home to the right wing.
Consider these words from
a Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, speaking to a group of
newly naturalized citizens: "You have just taken an oath
of allegiance to the United States. Of allegiance to whom? Of
allegiance to no one, unless it be God. Certainly not of allegiance
to those who temporarily represent this great government. You
have taken an oath of allegiance to a great ideal, to a great
body of principles, to a great hope of the human race."
By the end of the century,
our presidents saw it differently. Bill Clinton told a 1995 Michigan
State University commencement shortly after the Oklahoma City
bombing, "There's nothing patriotic about hating your government
or pretending you can hate your government but love your country."
And in a few years, George Bush's attorney general would imply
that even criticizing government policy was unpatriotic.
How had loyalty to government
come to replace loyalty to ideals, place, and people in the pantheon
of patriotism? In part because the American elite had decided
that nations no longer mattered all that much. It was government
we needed to honor lest our parochialism interfere with corporate
multi-nationalism. In 1992, Strobe Talbott had written in Time
Magazine, "Within the next hundred years . . . nationhood
as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single,
global authority . . . All countries are basically social arrangements,
accommodations to changing circumstances. No matter how permanent
and even sacred they may seem at any one time, in fact they are
all artificial and temporary."
Talbott was expressing
a centrist consensus later confirmed by that Washington favorite,
Francis Fukuyama: "Globalization will not be reversed."
And by Vaclav Havel, approvingly quoted in the New York Review
of Books referring to nations as "cultlike entities charged
It was not just a matter
of words. No assault on American sovereignty has been more successful
than that carried out in recent years by the globalization movement,
using such mechanisms as NAFTA and the WTO. That which, over
the course of our history, the British, Mexicans, Confederates,
Spanish, Germans and Japanese had been unable to do was now being
accomplished by a handful of lawyers armed only with cell phones,
fax machines and the support of politicians willing to trade
their country's nationhood for another campaign contribution.
And it wasn't just happening
to America. By the 1990s, about half the top economies of the
world were not nations, but corporations. Trade had replaced
ideology as the engine of foreign affairs. Politics, nationhood
and the idea of place itself was being supplanted by a huge,
amorphous international corporate culture that ruled not by force
but by market share. This culture, in the words of French writer
Jacques Attali, sought an "ideologically homogenous market
where life will be organized around common consumer desires."
Yet now, suddenly, we
speak of patriotism again. Why did so many need the Viagra of
violence to demonstrate love for their land? Where was this love
when NAFTA and the World Trade Organization were being forced
down our throats? Where was it as corporations raped our waters
and forests and infected our crops? Where was it when the young
took to the streets to defend old American values against a new
world order? And where was this love of America during the long
"war" on drugs as a growing number of politicians,
police, and financial institutions served as allies to the drug
It now feels odd to this
Vietnam era vet, whose great-great-great fought with his four
brothers in the Revolution and whose parents both lost brothers
in World War I, to be lectured on patriotism by those who until
the morning of September 11 had evinced so little interest in
loyalty to any larger entity than themselves and their careers.
To be sure, the sudden
rise in patriotic self-branding is not entirely a spontaneous
reaction to the tragic events. It has also been the direct result
of intense government and corporate propaganda capitalizing on
these events and on a long-cultivated shift by which Americans
have been reduced to being spectators and consumers, rather than
actual citizens, of their government. We have been taught to
cheer rather than act, to wear logos rather than think, and to
purchase rather than control and influence. At a moment calling
for the most rational vision and thought, our leaders - from
the White House to CNN - have instead chosen to turn this tragedy
into a Super Bowl of national affairs in which our only assignment
as Americans is to choose the right team and cheer it on.
This is a dirty business
that does a huge disservice to the country they purport to honor.
Remember: these are the people who, in the months before September,
not only were assuring us that our future lay in giving up our
national independence for the greater good of a corporate-dominated
global culture, but who arrested our young people who dared suggest
this was not right, and who ridiculed anyone who spoke with feeling
of the need to protect America's sovereignty on behalf of its
workers, its environment, and its civil liberties.
These people have further
failed us by creating a world so filled with hatred for our land.
They have failed us by not protecting us against the consequences.
They have failed us by selling out our interests to the highest
multinational bidder. And now they fail us again, by presuming
that they know how best to love this land and imputing disloyalty
to those who doubt them. They are in no position to say who is
a good American. While we pledge allegiance to the republic for
which America stands, we do not have to pledge allegiance to
the empire and its failed policies for which America is now suffering.
There are few finer, albeit painful, expressions of loyalty than
to tell a friend, a spouse, a child, or a parent that what they
are doing may be dangerous or wrong. If our country is about
to run into the street without looking, there is absolutely nothing
disloyal about crying, "Stop!"
Besides, true patriotism
is an act of love, not hate. It is service not revenge, contributions
not cheers, participation not prohibition, and debate not salutes.
To find the real America
buried in our hearts, we have to turn off the amps of propaganda
and hype, the reverb and distortion of our fears and failures,
and listen to the country unplugged. Some of the best things
can only be heard when everything else is still.
There are lots of different
ways to think about America. Some people like to call America
a "nation of laws," but that sounds like we just spend
our days obeying regulations - the sort of place only an attorney
Other people think of
America as a government, or as a geographical subdivision, which
is fair enough but fails to give the real flavor of the place
or explain the strong feelings many Americans have for their
But it is also a triptych
of environment, people, and ideals
An environment is more
than a place; it is a condition, it is sustenance, it is shelter,
it is a thousand invisible threads tying us to that which lies
way out there.
The natural habitat of
America long overwhelmed anything that could be built by mere
humans, a fact that shaped our character and our culture. It
has, to be sure, created oddities: we have become the most ecologically
wasteful of nations yet have given the world some of its finest
environmental writings. We have preserved some of the world's
great natural spaces, but only after virtually exterminating
those who lived there. The grandeur of our land has at times
made us profligate, at other times humble and religious. We are
deeply romantic about the wilderness yet have been ruthless in
In the past one hundred
years or so we have learned how to replace nature with systems,
technology, machines and institutions. For a long time it seemed
to work. It appeared that America had a lifetime pass to progress.
That Americans could do even better than nature.
But a few decades ago,
things started to go awry. Our cities began to disintegrate.
Families broke up with startling frequency. Real income slid
and jobs drifted overseas. The environment became less a cornucopia
and more a problem. Our non-natural systems no longer seemed
as wonderful as they once had.
As these artificial systems
failed us, some Americans began returning to natural ones, finding
in them a wisdom and sustenance the constructed systems could
not provide. Farmers rediscovered non-chemical ways to protect
their crops. Communities and businesses began to recycle and
seek self-sufficiency. Individuals began downshifting their consumption
and lifestyles. And planners discovered long-ignored benefits
in treading more softly on the earth.
Even after two hundred
years of frequent and massive mistreatment, the American environment
is still vital enough to welcome us back, asking only that this
time we play by its rules. Its message is simple: that we do
not have to belong to artificial systems; we can belong to the
We can also define ourselves
as a people. Because of the variety of our backgrounds, it is
not, however, a primeval past or cultural similarity that binds
us but rather a shared present and future.
Sometimes -- such as in
times of massive disaster -- we act on this communality. We suddenly
and without instruction mobilize ourselves to help those miles
away, recognizing for a few days or a few months that they are
also one of us. We do the same thing when we're having fun; at
a concert or a festival we feel a bond with everyone sharing
the same experience. And when an admired leader dies, we grieve
As with the environment,
though, we are inconsistent. America remains one of the most
favored destinations for those seeking freedom and a better life,
yet the newcomer often finds hostility as well as freedom, discrimination
as well as opportunity.
In the end, it is not
the culture from which we came but the one each of us is helping
to create that will matter. It is our common fate rather than
our disparate pasts that will ultimately describe, redeem, or
What we take for granted
-- that a nation and a people should be organized around a set
of principles -- was once considered revolutionary and even today
remains remarkable. It also takes a lot of work and a lot of
argument. But it is one of the things that best defines America.
As with our personal ideals,
our country has repeatedly failed to live up to what it proclaims.
But while we may not always practice what we preach, at least
we do not preach what we practice. The mere existence of our
principles and the willingness of large numbers of Americans
to work for them gives the country a special character.
In short, America is not
the answer; it is only a good place to look for the answer. America
has never been perfect; it's just been a place where it was easier
to fix things that were broken. The ability to repair ourselves
has long been one of our great characteristics as a people and
Each of us can express
love for America in their own way. The Green may do so through
care of our environment. The libertarian or anarchist may do
so by preserving our faith in liberty. The progressive or socialist
may do it by insisting that America's promise of social justice
be fulfilled. The conservative may do it by preserving the good.
The deeply religious may do it through personal witness. The
oppressed may do it through protest and leading us towards our
ideals. The cop may do it through upholding the laws of the land
- including the most important one, the Constitution. The artist
may paint it, the musician sing about it, the teacher teach it.
Most of all, being an
American means nobody gets to tell you how best to be an American.
As Woodie Guthrie pointed out, this land may be your land, but
it is mine as well.