Former Occupy Wall Street leader Micah White explores patriotism’s roots in resistance, back when loving one’s country meant fighting against oppressors
By Micah White / The Guardian / March 14, 2017
After the collapse of Occupy Wall Street, my wife and I fled the progressive groupthink of Berkeley, California and resettled out here in Nehalem, in rural Oregon, close to unpoliced forests and far from the nearest university, airport or anarchist infoshop.
All was reasonably well until I ran for mayor of my tiny town, provoking a backlash. When I received a racist death threat shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, I was forced to see my rural community and my diverse country in a newly sinister light.
The ugly truth is that many, if not most, of my neighbors voted for Trump’s authoritarian bigotry. And then – like the Brits upset by Brexit, the French disturbed by Marine Le Pen, and Filipinos furious about Rodrigo Duterte – I found myself torn by a civil war fought between the side of me that hates what my country has become, and the patriotic part of my spirit that loves what my country could be.
After weeks of inner struggle, the patriotic side has won and I glimpse the path upward: we must seize patriotism from those who are destroying our democracies.
We must reclaim patriotism
Oftentimes, progressives are all too quick to abandon patriotism when their country strays dangerously from its ideals. The tenor of this anti-patriotism was most eloquently captured by Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who Donald Trump recently praised for doing an “amazing job”.
Shortly before the Europe-wide revolution of 1848 that violently dethroned France’s King Louis Philippe, Douglass returned to the US from Britain where he had fled to escape the slave-catchers sent by his former master. In a powerful speech delivered in New York, Douglass called for a revolution, declaring:
I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism … I desire to see [America] overthrown as speedily as possible and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments, rather than that this foul curse should continue to remain as now.
His words presaged the coming American civil war, a notoriously bloody conflict that revised the constitution to include the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to overturn slavery.
Douglass rejected patriotism – narrowly defined as love of one’s country – in favor of a greater, universalist sentiment. “I love Humanity all over the globe. I am anxious to see Righteousness prevail in all directions,” he said in the same speech.
While noble, this now common conceptual move of pitting love of country against love of humanity is a strategic revolutionary blunder. If the people wish to attain sovereignty, we must merge the particular love of our country with the universal love of humanity. This means celebrating what is best and eradicating what is worst in each nation until all people are free.
It is not difficult to understand Douglass’s deep antipathy for America: a white supremacist nation where slavery was legal and socially acceptable while he was considered to be both chattel and a traitor. Similarly, it is perfectly understandable why cosmopolitan Americans today might see Trump’s travel ban against six Muslim countries, and the populace who support it, as justification for openly hating their American homeland.
But in these dark times, when the ideals of democracy are being tested globally like never before, let us remember that the true patriots throughout history have traditionally been the rebels, insurrectionaries and revolutionaries who forcefully overturned the status quo in favor of a higher vision.
Are you a loyalist or a patriot?
There is perhaps no better example of this fact than the 18th century American revolution – the successful armed rebellion against the British monarchy and Parliament that led to the founding of the United States of America.
During this people’s struggle for sovereignty, a very large number of Americans favored keeping the government the same. They loved their colony as it was and actively fought against change. These reactionary Americans were known as loyalists and they reasonably believed, as historian Sheila Skemp puts it: “King and Parliament had made some mistakes but that surely it was possible to work things out, to reach an amicable compromise.”
It sounds a lot like how many Republican and Democratic Americans, masquerading as patriots, say to appease Trump today.
Loyalists were fiercely opposed by revolutionary Americans known as patriots. These patriotic rebels dreamed of a fundamental reorientation of political power in America. They demanded sovereignty and were adherents to an as-yet unrealized ideal of democracy – not the colony as-it-was.
It is easy to assume that your friends and neighbors today would have been patriots during the American revolution, but the truth is far more nuanced. Instead, the conflict between patriots and loyalists was a civil war that divided families, friends and communities. For example, Benjamin Franklin, a founding father and leading patriot, never forgave his son, William Franklin, for being a loyalist.
Here we begin to see the paradox at the heart of authentic patriotism: true patriots are the people who reboot their country’s operating system in order to upgrade to a better, more democratic, version. Today’s jingoistic nationalists are truly false patriots: loyalists hiding behind patriotic rhetoric.
‘A little rebellion now and then is a good thing’
Despite the contemporary misconception that patriotism is inherently reactionary, the essential connection between patriotism and revolutionism has been vocally celebrated by American presidents since the founding of our democracy.
Thomas Jefferson, an author of the Declaration of Independence, once wrote in a letter to James Madison, architect of the US constitution and bill of rights, that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical”.
Jefferson also advocated only mild punishment for rebellions so as to avoid discouraging them too much. And, in a wakeup call to today’s Americans, Jefferson famously advocated revolutions every two decades, writing in 1787: “God forbid we should be 20 years without a rebellion … What country can preserve its liberties if the rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”
Abraham Lincoln echoed Jefferson during his inaugural address in 1861 when he said: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember, or overthrow it.”
And so too did Ulysses S Grant in 1885 when he declared: “The right of revolution is an inherent one. When people are oppressed by their government, it is a natural right they enjoy to relieve themselves of the oppression if they are strong enough, either by withdrawing from it, or by overthrowing it and substituting a government more acceptable.”
The path upwards
Concretely speaking, rebellious social movements are created from a contagious mood, a new tactic and a willing historical moment. The first two ingredients are within the control of social activists while the third, the right time for a spark to catch flame, is impossible to know for certain.
The most effective patriotic mood has repeatedly proven to a contagious loss of fear: a sudden spirit of fearlessness that sweeps the people into a wave. People rush to join a social movement because of how it makes them feel to participate. The job of the social activist is to catalyze a fearless mood, combined with the communal faith that this time around the people’s protest will succeed.
New tactics embolden the people and give them faith. The new tactic can be a novel gesture or collective behavior, such as Occupy’s consensus-based encampments, the anti-coup Rabia sign or the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games that was banned in Thailand; an in-group color, such as blaze pink; or a unique garment, like pussy hats or the Phrygian cap. Ultimately, all that matters is that the participants believe the tactic will bring about social change. That is enough for it to be perceived as a form of protest and become a challenge to the regime.
Nowadays, the right of revolution is as inalienable as ever, yet it is rarely acknowledged by those in power. Unlike presidents Jefferson, Lincoln and Grant today’s leaders are loathe to concede that if their government is oppressive, then the people have a duty to revolt. Notice how Barack Obama is fond of praising protesters’s right of assembly but stops far short of celebrating the right of revolution.
All this leads to the final epiphany that we, the people, have a patriotic duty to defend our country whenever our governments conflicts with a higher, democratic ideal.