As a Civil Rights Lawyer sworn by oath to defend the interests of those least capable of defending themselves, I often find cause to define the phrase “Proud to be an American” in a way different from the typical. This is understandable by dint of professional training for three years in law school and twenty years since, I have been given to understand the phrase in the context of a rich and not always entirely consistent legal history of the United States to which…
As a Civil Rights Lawyer sworn by oath to defend the interests of those least capable of defending themselves, I often find cause to define the phrase “Proud to be an American” in a way different from the typical. This is understandable; by dint of professional training for three years in law school and twenty years since, I have been given to understand the phrase in the context of a rich and not always entirely consistent legal history of the United States to which most people not trained in the law never learn in detail.
In light of that history, a few examples of which I’ll discuss in just a moment, I’ve had to reconcile my pride in American ideals versus American conduct which is sometimes in poor service to those ideals. Most people don’t make that distinction. For example, Ann Coulter, a toxic, dishonest and cynical right wingnut, suggests that any criticism of American conduct is the act of a traitor… until “W” was out office and Obama stepped in. Then, of course, criticism of the government is the act of a patriot. Sadly, her fanatic ‘fan base’ doesn’t have the intellectual honesty to see this divergence, plain though it is. “America: love it or leave it” is another inane expression of a ‘blind, deaf and dumb’ – and thus childish and dishonest – way of being ‘proud’ to be an American.
That kind of pride an America true to her ideals in their highest expression doesn’t need. That kind of love and pride is like that of a child. It’s like loving a movie star for the character she plays and her conduct on screen, but not for the person she is when takes off her masque. In order to truly be ‘proud’ to an American, we have to be knowledgeable and honest about what America is, and what she’s done. You can’t love someone unless you know them.
Nearly everyone has heard of the Declaration of Independence. They think of it as a noble document, and in many ways, it is. It took great courage to draft, and even greater courage to defend with blood, in war. Yet it was drafted by white Christian men, some of whom were slave owners, all of whom denied the right to vote to women, and who wrote not all “people,” but instead all “men,” are created equal. It goes without saying as well that the word “men” did not, at the time, contemplate men of color.
The Constitution is also often mentioned by everyone, even those who never learned much else is school, as a nearly religious document forming the foundation of all our country is and does, yet, again, nearly no one outside of politics, government and the law have bothered to read it critically, rationally, and fairly. Drafted by a similar group of white Christian men, some of whom were again slave owners, the document also espouses noble sentiments. It was the first of its kind on the planet and, in the highest expression of flattery in the history of civilization on Earth, has been copied many times over.
Yet the document declared that slaves of the southern states, none of whom could vote, counted as “three fifths” of a person. Three fifths of a human being. And that was a compromise. It’s a sordid story. The newly formed government was to include two branches of the legislature, formed on the model of the British Parliament. The Senate, then as now, would contain two senators per state, regardless of state population. The House of Representatives, however, would base membership by state population. Then, as now, the southern states contained vastly fewer people – slaves and non-slaves – than the northern states. And so an odd, very unsettling and cynical debate arose over this point.
The northern non-slave owning state Constitutional delegates didn’t want to count slaves at ‘persons’ at all, while the southern delegates, from states where owning a human being was the same thing as owning a chair, wanted every slave counted as a person. Of course, these southern delegates had no intention of allowing those slaves to vote for the representatives their numbers would send to the capitol, and so their insistence that their slaves were ‘persons’ was the worst and most horrid dishonesty, but there it was. The northern folk for whom slavery ranged from unfamiliar and discomfiting to outright abomination didn’t want to consider people to be ‘people’ for the purpose of interpreting the document which would guide the very conduct of our nation, and the people for whom slaves were like any other owned animal wanted to count those slaves as ‘people.’
So should we all be ‘proud’ that such a debate could even take place? It depends, doesn’t it? If you’re proud that, having begun thus, we’ve cloven to the ideals of the Constitution without holding the original words, then yes, pride is exactly where you want to be. But be that kind of proud, you have to know what I just explained. If you didn’t your love was not as informed as it should have been.
There are other blemishes on our nation’s history, when this country acted entirely inconsistently with at least the sentiment, if not the outright meaning, of the words in our historical documents.
In addition to allowing human beings to be owned as cattle, and in addition to denying women the right to vote, our nation allowed children to go without school and to work 10, 12 and 14 or more hours per day, for what amounted to slave wages that created a standard of living even lower than most slaves endured (at least most slaves did not have to purchase food, water, medical care and shelter, but ‘free’ working children did or they and their families went without).
This situation persisted in our country for longer than it hasn’t; child labor laws were only passed in twentieth century and, at about the same time, historically speaking, as a woman’s right to vote was recognized. The United States didn’t allow women to vote, and did allow children to work excessive hours in dangerous labor conditions, for longer than it has not.
Even after a woman’s right to vote was recognized, even after labor unions were finally allowed to exist (though not before the ‘entrepreneurs’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, now lionized as the fathers of our modern super economy, battered and beat the labor leaders, and manipulated a partially corrupt political and judicial system, in an effort to kill the labor movement entirely), even after child labor laws were passed and even after slavery ended, this country still acted disgracefully when it came to Civil Rights.
In World War II, the United States imprisoned Japanese Americans some of whom were citizens of this country, simply because they looked different than we did. There were no “internment camps” for Italian Americans or German Americans, only for Japanese.
Even as recently as 50 years ago, African Americans were not recognized by law in their right to vote and were treated as subhuman, relegated to substandard accommodations and substandard water fountains, transportation and other public privileges that white Americans had been taking for granted throughout the entire history of the country.
I know many of you know some of this, in truth, and very few might know all of it, but now that you do, what to think about your country? What to feel? Pride, nonetheless, and notwithstanding. Pride, for the same reason that we’re proud of our children who learn lessons in how to behave and become better people, pride in ourselves when we do the same. What is more deserving of praise than lessons learned, wrong conduct honestly acknowledged, higher ideals espoused and implemented?
It is, as Thomas Paine said, “the duty of a patriot to protect his country from his government.” And so it is because we all want to be proud to be Americans that we do so.
I am a Civil Rights Lawyer who believes in the Rule of Law and who believes that the weakest and least capable of our society deserve the greatest degree of protection. Thomas Paine also said “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Martin Luther King said, expressing similar sentiment: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And that, simply, is what it means to be proud to be an American when your pride comes from knowledge of where we’ve been and where we’ve come, and where we have to go. When you make sure you want, and that your government delivers, justice for all and not just for those with money, or the right gender, or the right religion, or the right race, or the right sexual orientation… and when you’re ready to sacrifice for those ideals… then you’re an American, and you should be proud.
And so I do not believe in “mob rule” and I do not believe in “pure” democracy because that’s just another way of saying mob rule. I believe in a republic where intelligent, capable and dedicated people are elected to do a specific job so that the rest of us don’t have to think about roads, taxes and wars every day and so that the rest of us can on about our lives without having to attend sixteen hour a day town meetings to vote on national policy. Yet they who serve must aspire to the highest ideals of what it means to be an American or they’re not fit for service.
Of course, the system doesn’t always work; not everyone who serves in public office has ever been, or currently is, a font for all of those virtues. Yet we can hope, being human, that as many public servants as possible are a font for as many virtues as possible, and the ones embodied in Paine’s and King’s words foremost of all. We will never have better than that ideal. That said, and given that we can only use human servants to serve our republic and our democracy, we do the best we can.
I’m proud to be an American because I can write this blog. I’m proud to be an American because I have the right to criticize my government, whether a Republican or a Democrat sits in the White House. I don’t agree with everything that President Obama has done despite the fact that I voted for him. I’m possessed of the right to say so, as long as I’m a thinking person who bases his opinion upon reason and fact and not upon passion and irrationality.
Yet there is a time for passion. I prepared this blog during the week of our national holiday, though it will be posted between the Fourth of July and Labor Day. I’ve outgrown fireworks and the sometimes regrettable jingoistic, childish “patriotism” that often attends Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and now September 11th. Instead, on those days, I think of how we’ve outgrown the imperfect words of our founding documents and reached for the ideals behind them. Sometimes, ‘sacrifice’ in service of that reaching is simply abandoning passionate and childish ideas about our country, which gets harder as we age. And sometimes, for an honored and select group, that sacrifice means much, much more.
With that pride does come possessiveness, I admit. Like the great quote from Animal House when the fraternity pledges were being abused by other than the fraternity leadership (“they can’t do that to our pledges!” “Yeah, only we can do that to our pledges!”), I don’t like it when people from other countries who don’t shoulder the burden of being an American – and all the educated insight, honesty and duty that requires which comes for citizenship in such a unique and powerful country – presume to criticize cynically.
During Present Kennedy’s Administration, the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, was in France. During the early 1960’s when Charles de Gaulle, then the President of France and a former General in World War II, pulled out of the NATO Alliance, President de Gaulle told Rusk that he wanted US military out of France as soon as was practical.
In reply, Rusk quietly asked “Does that include those who are buried here?”
When in England, at a large conference, former General and Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury if President Bush’s plans for Iraq were “just an example of Empire building,” by George Bush.
The answer made no reference to President Bush at all, who was deservedly criticized by many for a lot of things. Instead, General Powell chose to accept the criticism as a desire on the part of America to empire build and answered: “Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land that we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those who did not return.”
These are instances where one is reminded that America has tried her best and has succeeded more often that she has failed. Since we ask no more than that from ourselves or from anyone else, how can we hold America to a higher standard? She does her best, and for that, I am proud to be an American.