A Dissident's Holiday

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Have you ever noticed a certain hesitant quality to the expressions of patriotism by progressives or left-wingers?

The patriotism of the conservative goes unquestioned. It's assumed that every politician on the right will wear a flag on his lapel and effortlessly hold forth on ours as "the greatest country in the history of the world."

You can be certain that on this, as on every July 4th, patriotic oratory will flow as well from liberals declaring their love of flag, country and the Declaration of Independence. Many will speak of how our constitutional republic is to be revered especially for its guarantees of liberty and justice for all and -- hint, hint -- limits on the powers of overreaching monarchs.

But the progressive and the reformer have a problem with what passes for unadulterated patriotism. By nature, the reformer is bound to insist that the country, however glorious, is not a perfect place, that it is capable of doing wrong as well as right. The nation that declared "all men are created equal" was, at the time those words were written, the home of an extensive system of slavery.

Most reformers guard their patriotic credentials by moving quickly to the next logical step: that the true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

One need only point to the uses that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. made of the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence against slavery and racial injustice to show how the intellectual and moral traditions of the United States operate in favor of continuous reform.

There is, moreover, a distinguished national tradition in which dissident voices identify with the revolutionary aspirations of the republic's founders. Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned anti-slavery champion, offered the classic text in his 1852 address often published under the title: "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

"To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy," Douglass declared. "Everybody can say it. . . . But there was a time when, to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men's souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day."

This telling of the Fourth of July story identifies the day as part of a long, progressive history and turns "agitators" and "plotters of mischief" into the holiday's true heroes. The Fourth is transformed from an affirmation of continuity into a celebration of change. The republic's founders are praised not because they inaugurated a system designed to stand forever, unaltered, but because they blazed a path toward what Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has called "active liberty." They set the nation on a course that would, as Breyer put it, expand "the scope of democratic self-government."

This is not a philosophy for the stand-patter nor a recipe for living in the past. And it emphatically rejects any definition of true patriotism that cedes to a current ruling group the right to declare what is or is not "Americanism."

The Fourth of July is, of course, a celebration of national unity and of shared love of country. But it need not bother us that there has always been a struggle over the day's meaning. This is part of a larger argument over how to interpret our national tradition, an ongoing quarrel that I suspect the revolutionaries of '76 would understand.

Those who reject the idea of national perfection, who insist that the Founders laid out a pathway and not a destination, should thus resist defensiveness. They should embrace the creed offered in a speech to Congress in 1990 by Vaclav Havel, the Eastern European dissident who became president of the Czech Republic.

"As long as people are people, democracy, in the full sense of the word, will always be no more than an ideal," Havel said. "One may approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy."

That we're still trying, 230 years after we declared independence, is our national glory.


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