Today's picnic speechmakers will toss the word "freedom" around like so much salad dressing, shiny and slick. The word is generally meaningless in these parts, except as code for the liberty to drive SUVs and get lots of cheap stuff at Walmart, to live in gated communities, literal and figurative, to lead lives of sloth unimaginable to previous generations, and to eat so much we grow sick with our own fat.
It's an easy freedom, and it calls dissent unpatriotic.
The freedom that really differentiates Americans from much of the rest of the world is codified in the Bill of Rights, including a free press, the right to assemble freely, and the right of the accused to habeas corpus, that ultimate right seized from kings, to "have the body" instead of leaving it rot without trial in, say, a Gitmo cell.
Those are not the freedoms most speakers will be referring to when they take to the dais today. Civil liberties, and dissent especially, are the "bad" freedoms, under attack by the Bush administration for going on six years now. To great effect, Republicans have labeled people who don't agree with the conduct of the War on Terror unpatriotic. The implication is that if you don't support domestic wiretapping, preemptive war and torture, you don't really love America, and therefore you aren't a good citizen.
I'm ashamed to say I only understood the visceral force of the smear when it was hurled my way, for writing an article expressing doubts about patriotism in a public school. After I received some 300 letters suggesting I move back to France, I realized there is something really insulting about being accused of not sufficiently "loving" America for daring to question the teaching of rote patriotism.
Patriotism is indeed the last refuge of scoundrels, as Samuel Johnson once said. Other writers have compared it to a superstition, a web of lies used to persuade men to kill each other. It's equally true that the sentiment of patriotism is felt by most of us to some degree. Even sophisticates can get choked up at Ray Charles singing about good and brotherhood in his heartbreaking rendition of "America, The Beautiful." And aren't there leftists who feel a certain uplift at sighting a familiar American emblem -- even, dare I say it, a McDonald's M or the flag? -- after a long, wearying trek in foreign lands? I hesitate to use the words "love" or "patriotism" to describe this feeling for the nation, but I admit that it is a sentiment, an emotion.
A few years ago, I landed at JFK after a year living in France, and was nearly moved to tears by the sight of the contraband-sniffing beagles in their vests and the corn-fed girl who handles them. The congeniality in that airport was palpably different from what I had grown accustomed to in Europe. I realized I was seeing with fresh eyes something grim and diffident Parisians understand about us from the outside.
Given the misuse to which the word "patriot" has been applied over the years, and the damage that word has done in this country in the last few years alone, it might be hard to persuade progressives to try to reclaim it. But it's time we did.
Today, as speakers beat the word "freedom" into meaningless submission, we should try to identify our own positive feelings about this country. Is it in a stubborn belief in the possibility of good and brotherhood? A spirit of dissidence, and challenging authority? Free speech? Separation of church and state? Wide open spaces, Route 66, jazz, hip-hop, suburbia, McDonald's? Hollywood? What might we feel about America if we were exiles? Which, in a real political sense, we have been.
This Fourth of July, we should begin to forge an intellectual and emotional basis for redefining patriotism. We can feel hope for the future of our culture and pride in our heritage without allowing that sentiment to be transformed into the kind of blind patriotism manipulated to support wars and revile foreigners. There is a way to love this country and still be a citizen of the earth, without being a flag-waving warmonger. Let's find a way to celebrate that.