Reclaiming “Patriotism”

In far too many ways, for too many election cycles now, the political right has had a lock on several key campaign buzzwords, despite their repeated violations of everything that I’ve understood those concepts to mean. Like “family values,” which has been used not to support such actual families as exist in this country but instead to bludgeon them into a non-threatening conformity. Or “morality,” which has had less to do with actually thinking about any of that love-thy-neighbor stuff than it has with exclusion and passing judgment. Or being “tough on crime.” Or standing for a “strong national defense.” And so on. The right has gradually, almost invisibly, shifted the terms of political discourse in the U.S. in such a way that the left is forced either to argue against ideas that sound awfully important to the majority of Americans or to shift rightward themselves.

As my last post suggests, I’m getting a bit cranky over it all, and wish like crazy that the Democrats — and I don’t mean the pundits, because Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo and Michael Moore can do this until they’re blue in the face, and it won’t change anything; I mean the politicians themselves — would finally call the Republicans on the carpet over these little rhetorical deployments. I want someone — and I’m looking at you, John Kerry — to stand up and say that it’s utterly hypocritical to claim that you’re for “family values” and then to insist on regulating what gets to count as a family; to say that “Affirmative Action” and “racial preferences” are not the same thing, and won’t be turned into the same thing no matter how many times you say they’re the same; to say that it’s wholly possible to have a “strong national defense” without bankrupting everything that the nation you’re defending stands for.

But the politicians on what amounts to the left in this country just aren’t working to reclaim the language in the ways they need to, and so the right continues to make its inroads. On October 25, 2001, Congress unanimously approved a resolution, signed by the President on December 18 of that year, declaring September 11 “Patriot Day.” Between this and the PATRIOT Act, the Bush administration has been not-at-all-subtly working to lay claim to the conceptual ground of “patriotism,” transforming it from a sense of pride in a nation that strives always for justice and equality, or at least to improve the chances thereof, into a mindless conformity and acceptance. If the right has its way, a “patriot” will no longer be one who questions, who protests, who fights for the rights of her fellow citizens, but one who shuts up and does what her leaders say.

And, unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Democrats have by and large gone along with this shift. If “patriotism” is going to be reclaimed, it’s going to have to begin without the politicians, with the patriots themselves.

From my pal David comes The September Project, a grassroots effort to reclaim the meaning of “patriotism,” by encouraging Americans to spend September 11 in their local public libraries, reading, talking, questioning, becoming informed, and acting collectively to imagine — and create — a better United States.

It doesn’t surprise me that, in a number of venues where I’ve seen the September Project discussed (on air-l, for instance, or at Crooked Timber), the initial response has been somewhat tinged with hostility, precisely because the invitation to participate is framed using language that rings with the right’s buzzwords: citizens, community, country, and, of course, patriotism. But there are also other words, words the right would just as soon we didn’t see: creative, informed, engaged, collective.

So more power to the September Project for working to take back the high ground of “patriotism” for those of us who have for too long felt shut out by the reactionary uses of the concept. Now if only the politicians would follow suit.

I’m still looking at you, John Kerry.

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