Smart Dissent

By Al Giordano

Yesterday, in Independence, Missouri, Senator Obama delivered this speech on patriotism, titled "The America We Love":

 

If you've been sprouting Chicken Little feathers in recent days, gnashing teeth over the nominee's reported "move to the center" (or "to the right"), worrying about whether Wes Clark got pushed - or leaped on his own - under the proverbial bus after his remarks distracted from the message of this speech yesterday (Clark, himself, on Good Morning America today acknowledged, ""I'm very sorry that this has distracted from the message of patriotism that Sen. Obama wants to put out"), I have an interesting homework assignment for you.

Please put aside 28 minutes and 22 seconds today to give your full attention to the video of that speech. And then, if you still feel this nominee is offering more of the same as previous nominees, come back here and make your case at least with the benefit of the full knowledge of what exactly was trampled upon during yesterday's Chicken Little stampede.

Obama said:

 

...it is worth considering the meaning of patriotism because the question of who is - or is not - a patriot all too often poisons our political debates, in ways that divide us rather than bringing us together.  I have come to know this from my own experience on the campaign trail.  Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given.  It was how I was raised; it is what propelled me into public service; it is why I am running for President.  And yet, at certain times over the last sixteen months, I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged - at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for.

 

 So let me say at this at outset of my remarks.  I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign.  And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine.

 

That last turn of phrase received such great applause from the Missourians in that hall because most people understand that an early skirmish in the general election fight will determine to what extent Republican nominee John McCain - the former prisoner of war in Vietnam - will or will not have the elbow room to impugn Obama's patriotism. McCain and his surrogates have tried to go there so far with limited success. Those words put up a barrier around their ability to do so in deeper ways. Obama's "I will not stand idly by" was a warning shot. The people in the room got it. They know what is at stake in a depth that perhaps not every progressive pundit or blogger does.

I myself relate very intensely to the paradox, cited by Obama yesterday, that it is often the greatest patriots whose patriotism becomes questioned by lesser lights:

 

...throughout our history, men and women of far greater stature and significance than me have had their patriotism questioned in the midst of momentous debates.  Thomas Jefferson was accused by the Federalists of selling out to the French.  The anti-Federalists were just as convinced that John Adams was in cahoots with the British and intent on restoring monarchal rule.  Likewise, even our wisest Presidents have sought to justify questionable policies on the basis of patriotism.  Adams' Alien and Sedition Act, Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans - all were defended as expressions of patriotism, and those who disagreed with their policies were sometimes labeled as unpatriotic.

 

 In other words, the use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the Republic.  Still, what is striking about today's patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s - in arguments that go back forty years or more.  In the early years of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, defenders of the status quo often accused anybody who questioned the wisdom of government policies of being unpatriotic.  Meanwhile, some of those in the so-called counter-culture of the Sixties reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea, of America itself - by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day...

 

As a writer, I believe that words should be powerful enough to stand on their own no matter who is writing them. Too many voices (at least among those with access to the media) rest on their laurels to claim authority. That's why, here and elsewhere, I try to limit any autobiographical references in my work. But when it comes to the topic of patriotism, since it is such a deeply personal one for me, I'm going to let loose a few snippets today.

Those of you that have known me over the decades know that my life's work has been deeply fed by my own sense that true patriotism requires dissent (and, most importantly, effective dissent; it is not enough to be "correct" if one can't also bring others over to his or her position). It's what caused me to dedicate the most energetic years of my youth to community organizing. It's what led to my arrest on charges of nonviolent civil disobedience 27 times, and long nights in various jails and prisons. It frankly brought me to the extreme of having to move outside the borders of my own country in order for this American dissident to have the wider vista to be able to describe my country as it truly is and the freedom of movement, economic and political, to be able to continue to change it.

The late Marty Jezer's book, Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel (1993, Rutgers University Press), along with others on the same subject, chronicle parts of my story during the decade of the 1980s when I studied and organized at the right hand of that late and often misunderstood patriot. And American patriot he was, maybe the last truly great one of the 20th century. It briefly tells the story of my work as an organizer in New England's anti-nuclear movement in my late teens and early 20s, prior to joining forces with the late Hoffman. Jezer - who was also part of that movement and eyewitness to those events - noted in his book that there was a natural tension between some of the older "60s generation" activists in that movement and me that was provoked by - get this - the small American flag pin that, when organizing, I wore on my shirt during that era.

Halfway across the country during those years, another young man of my own generation was organizing, too, on the South Side of Chicago. When I listened to his words, yesterday, I concluded, again, that he was formed by similar generational challenges:

 

Most Americans never bought into these simplistic world-views - these caricatures of left and right.  Most Americans understood that dissent does not make one unpatriotic, and that there is nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America's traditions and institutions.  And yet the anger and turmoil of that period never entirely drained away.  All too often our politics still seems trapped in these old, threadbare arguments - a fact most evident during our recent debates about the war in Iraq, when those who opposed administration policy were tagged by some as unpatriotic, and a general providing his best counsel on how to move forward in Iraq was accused of betrayal...

 

Of course, precisely because America isn't perfect, precisely because our ideals constantly demand more from us, patriotism can never be defined as loyalty to any particular leader or government or policy.  As Mark Twain, that greatest of American satirists and proud son of Missouri, once wrote, "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it."  We may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, and there are many times in our history when that's occurred.  But when our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism....

 

When was the last time that the United States had a president that understood, on such a clear and elaborated level, that dissent is the essence of patriotism?

No president by the name of Reagan, Bush or Clinton valued, or even understood, that central tenet of democracy.

For the last 28 years, at least, in the USA, the executive branch of government has chipped away at the most American of rights and freedoms, not just through restrictions of individual rights by The State, but especially by fostering the private sector's greater powers over us in the workplace, the marketplace, especially in the realms of ownership and privacy.

The space has closed radically upon patriotic American dissidents, including in, but not limited to, my own field of journalism. More often than not, it's economics that clip our wings. (Who would have thought that in 21st century America, for example, that one could lose his livelihood - and a press pass - simply for mentioning American patriots like Saul Alinsky or Andrew Kopkind? Had I had to pay the high cost of rent and food in the US when that came down last month, would I have enjoyed the time and space to be able to jumpstart this blog anew so rapidly and successfully? Just sayin'. When you factor in economics, the United States as the freest nation on earth ends at a different kind of border today: the one with the toll booth that exists inside national territory where you have to be able to pay to continue to speak freely.)

We have seen, especially post-9/11, hysteria and fear consume the leaders of both major political parties. Not since the McCarthy era has there been so much worry about associations and reputations, and the always-ready-for-a-nasty-witch-hunt "speech cop" mentality plagues the left (in organizations, in academia, in fundraising ventures) as much as, sometimes more than, it does on the right.

Among the baggage from the Clinton era of Democratic Party politics is this narrative about a nominee "moving to the center." I myself have a hard time breaking out of it, even though I know it's generally bullshit, and here's why: I have reported the campaigns of hundreds of candidates in the US and elsewhere, and for a number of years in my reckless youth I worked inside of political campaign staffs. And there's one thing that is evident from that experience: What a candidate says while seeking office has little to no bearing on his or her actions upon obtaining that office.

Too many progressive activists suffer from the illusion that if they leverage a candidate during a campaign that getting him or her to say one thing or another will later translate into policy. Ironically, it was Ralph Nader that pioneered that view of activism and we can all see to where it has naturally led him and some others after the frustration of decades of believing, despite the bad results, in a tactic that did not work. I can find very few examples of that in the campaigns I've covered, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Candidates that clipped to the right turned out to govern quite progressively. Candidates that tacked to the left governed more conservatively, sometimes to authoritarian extremes. A thousand issue organizations and interest groups tell their members to send them money and portray themselves as those who are policing the politicians and leveraging campaign seasons to do it, but their track record producing results from those politicians is abysmal.

And it's also a popular myth these days in some circles that "moving to the right" is what has hurt previous Democratic nominees. That's exactly the opposite of what happened to Michael Dukakis in 1988, whose 17-point lead in the polls was blown not because he moved to the right (he didn't) but because he was unable to frame his more liberal views in a non-ideological or "post-partisan" manner. From his disastrous debates where he boasted to be "a card carrying member of the ACLU" and his stammering, impersonal response when a CNN moderator asked him whether he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered, it was clinging to the left side of the divide that brought down that Democratic nominee.

In sum, I don't think that anything that Obama or McCain say during the campaign is going to determine how each of them will govern. If you think otherwise, can you cite an example of when that happened in US presidential politics? (Think of George H. W. Bush's 1988 mantra - "Read my lips: No new taxes!" - and his subsequent raising of taxes on most Americans when president.)

Nor do I particularly mind when I'm told that one of my big issues or heroes has been "thrown under the bus." Heroes are adults and have to take their knocks at times when they phrase things inartfully or get caught in a "gotcha" moment on TV (like happened to General Clark yesterday).

Here's a recent example that is close to home: No US journalist is as associated as much as I am with the reporting that exposed and beat back the attempted 2002 coup in Venezuela. Few have had the opportunity I've had to report, up close, on that country's president Hugo Chavez and to conclude that he is a democrat of policy and soul. When in his Latin American policy speech, Obama offered stern and errant words about Chavez, my response was neither to whine about "Sister Souljah moments" (another unfortunate concept that floated ashore with the debris from the Clinton era) nor to blindly deny that the nominee's view is wrongheaded. The tone that I recommend taking at those moments can be found in that which I took, when writing about the good, the bad and the ugly of what I deeply care about: Obama and the US-Latin America Time Bomb (May 26, 2008, Narco News).

My duty to the causes I care about is not to cry that we've been victimized, or that "the sky is falling," or to play armchair quarterback shouting from the bleachers at the captain on the field that he must make his next play a run or a pass. Nor is it to yell, "I'm taking my money and support and game board and going home." It is, rather, to inform and organize greater public opinion to grow to see the issue as I see it, so that whenever he may take office, he will have to deal with the reality that we have created with or without him.

People that care deeply and legitimately about misunderstood or unpopular issues like abolition of the death penalty for anyone (even for child rapists), or that Israel has to end its terrible treatment of Palestinians, or that there should be no immunity for telecommunications companies that spy on behalf of the government on Americans that communicate abroad, or fill-in-your-pet-issue-here, have to first educate and organize the citizenry to demonstrably agree with them before they can realistically insist that any political candidate stick his neck onto their pet chopping block.

Of much greater priority for me is to organize a network - as we are doing here - that, when the next president takes office on January 20, 2009, will be able to spread the word and frame the public debate in a way that he will have to do the right thing.

I do think it will be much easier and safer to do than it has been in a long, long time if that president is someone that instinctually understands that dissent is patriotism's highest calling: someone that will not attempt to demonize us nor pander to us, but who will at least be open to the conversation. And I opine that anybody that thinks we're seeing just "more of the same" is suffering from a kind of post-presidential-campaign-stress-syndrome and the traumas of campaigns past to a degree that he and she are unable to see what really is different at this moment in history.

Actually, I have to correct myself already: the highest calling of patriotism is not dissent. It is smart dissent, that based not on self-indulgence or the blurting of one's frustration's out in ways that seek to share the panic or the misery, but based on - even sometimes against great odds - building the objective conditions by which we will win the important battles worth fighting. We don't need any candidate's permission or endorsement of our issue or position to do that, and we sure don't have to wait for any politician to begin organizing the people to set him straight once in power. Ironically, we, the people have more leverage - if we organize - after a candidate becomes an official, than we do during the heat of an electoral campaign when he or she is so singularly focused on the goal of getting elected. And if we can use his own campaign as the basis through which to become organized, that much stronger will be our ability to move mountains when and if that campaign is victorious.

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About Al Giordano

Biography

Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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