‘Real Americans’ have always been rebels: a guide for progressive patriotism

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.

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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.

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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.”

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical Thomas Jefferson

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.

Again I’m reminded of the way Trump’s election has divided fathers against daughters and neighbor against neighbor.

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