Thoughts on Patriotism
Being in New York City on the Fourth, instead of Seattle, was strange for me, as my family always has a big get together. I did not see any fireworks. Instead, a few friends and I went to go see Michael Moore’s new film Sicko. I will write more on the film itself very soon, but right now I want to write about why I appreciated seeing the film on this particular day, Independence Day.
I’m not big into fireworks, but as a kid, I used to love going with my uncles to the reservation and purchasing fry bread and speaking to the old women who looked so much like my grandmother, and smiling at the older boys who were brown like me but different. I used to love looking at the beautiful jewelry and crafts while my uncles and cousins went straight to the huge packs of fireworks, which were probably illegal in Seattle proper. In the car ride back to Seattle, as everyone else chattered about the fireworks show we would have over barbequed salmon and watermelon and fruit punch, I would sit and think.
I can’t say now that it all fit together so coherently in my 12-year-old mind, but I remember wondering about this celebration of our “Independence,” and wondering how the old women who looked so much like my grandmother felt about it and the role this day had in advancing their livelihood. They depended on the big profits they made during this season, but were these profits a form of mockery? It always was strange to me that a black family in a city named after a Native American was celebrating the “independence” that we ourselves would not have enjoyed on this day’s first anniversary, the independence that the people from whom we bought our celebratory fireworks still in many senses did not enjoy.
Much later, in college, I would read Frederick Douglass’ speech given on the fifth of July, and it would take me back to memories of these trips. He said:
...Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask… [w]hat have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
…I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…
The film Sicko had a similar effect on me that I imagine Frederick Douglass’ speech may have had on audience members of his time. It compelled me to stop and think about what we are celebrating, who I mean when I say “we,” and what it means to be patriotic. Does patriotism mean an uncritical deference to all things apple pie, red, white, and blue? Does it mean accepting half-truths for the sake of loyalty? Or does it mean loving human beings, wanting your country to have a place in the betterment of humankind, and continuing to question and challenge governmental authority when it acts in ways that contradict our well-being?
Watching the film, which highlighted topics covered on TortDeform before (like patient dumping, 9/11 rescue workers, and corporate purchasing of the law) but with a distinctly human and personal perspective, recalled Douglass’ words and made me think about the state of our legal system. Douglass was asking what Independence Day meant to the American slave—today we could ask what it means to the average American who encounters so many daily frustrations with our government and with its apparent lack of regard for the well-being of its people.
In law school I read so many court opinions with which I disagreed, some of which entirely pissed me off because they made it clear that some people could get around the rules , could shape the rules to their benefit, while others were not even given a chance to state their case. But I also read so many decisions that reminded me that there are people, many people, who believe that the rightful function of the law is to protect people—from undue harm, from exploitation, from the violation of their rights.
So why believe in the efficacy of the law in protecting us? Why believe in civil justice? I think there’s a difference between believing that our court system is the cure-all, is flawless, and knowing that the law has a tangible effect on our daily lives, wanting to ensure that that effect is a positive and a fair one. Our legal system has been a vehicle for both oppression and for the recognition of basic rights and entitlements, but if people are shut out of the process, the system becomes entirely useless. Civil rights struggles continue to teach us that with its frustrations the law also produces victories for those persistent people who remind society what the law is supposed to do—not preserve privilege, but advance justice.
I suppose that is what “civil justice” is about—it’s about allowing people who have been wronged the opportunity to have their day in court, and not telling them that the system is shut off to them simply because their pocketbooks aren't thick enough to purchase it.
Now that Independence Day is over, we should ask ourselves what we can do together so that Douglass’ question, whether “the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, [are] extended to us,” can be answered in the affirmative. We should celebrate the possibility that his answer—“the blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common”—will one day be only historically relevant.
To me, patriotism in the form of critical optimism is the purest, most productive, and most respectable form there can be.