How Progressives Talk About July 4 And Our National History

There has to be a way we can do what needs doing, to shine a light on the problems and injustices in our country, while still publicly embracing a commitment to the whole country, the whole community.
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Frederick Douglass's iconic speech, "The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro," delivered in Rochester, New York, in 1852, is one of the most important ever delivered on the subject of Independence Day. The speech described the alienation slaves and African Americans in general felt from July 4 and also from America more broadly.

Although the most often-quoted section discusses that sense of alienation, it is also important to remember Douglass's conclusion to the speech:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from "the Declaration of Independence," the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.

Douglass remained optimistic about the future, despite the reality that--in 1852--the overwhelming majority of black Americans were enslaved.

President Obama gave a speech on June 30, 2008, called "The America We Love." It wasn't about the meaning of America for blacks as a whole, but what America meant to him as an individual. Colbert I. King of the Washington Post compared Obama's remarks with those of Douglass.

King noted that Obama, even while running for president and having his patriotism questioned, did not whitewash America's history by ignoring its misdeeds. Although as a boy he had expressed a childlike love of our country, his patriotism remained strong even as he learned more about and gained a fuller understanding of our past:

Obama said that as he got older, that instinct, "that America is the greatest country on earth--would survive my growing awareness of our nation's imperfections."

King then neatly summarized the differences between Douglass's and Obama's speeches:

While Douglass noted his estrangement from America's experiment with democracy, Obama claimed America as his own and the Fourth of July as a time to rejoice.

My guess, especially given his hopeful conclusion, is that were Douglass alive today he would speak about America in a way that resembles Obama's depiction -- in the body of his public remarks over 20 years -- in the broadest sense.

Neither would ignore the horrific crimes of the past, nor the way the legacy of those crimes continues to resonate. Neither would shrink from highlighting the continuing, fresh injustices being visited on African Americans and members of other non-white groups today.

But both would present a nuanced narrative -- one full of struggle and loss, yet also one of hope and gradual progress toward a goal we have not reached. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama asserted that on civil rights "things have gotten better," yet added: "better isn't good enough."

Without question, Frederick Douglass as a hero. Michael Lind characterized him in The Next American Nation as: "perhaps the greatest American of any race, of any century." It's highly appropriate in 2015 to remember Douglass's 1852 speech, especially on July 4.

On a related note, from a political perspective, we on the left have to be wary of allowing our public rhetoric to focus primarily on feelings of alienation from this country. I'm not trying to tell anyone how they should feel. No one should do that. I'm talking about what we publish and proclaim, and the strategic value thereof. What we cannot do, what Douglass himself did not do -- as seen in the conclusion to his 1852 speech -- is cede patriotism and an embrace of America to the right wing. This is a crucial point I've written about previously:

Philosopher Richard Rorty issued a clarion call for the cultivation of a progressive version of national pride. He rightly emphasized that such a feeling is "to countries what self-respect is to individuals. A necessary condition for self-improvement." Rorty went on to encourage left-of-center figures to take up the task. "Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation's past... to which the country should remain true... Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation's self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness."

Nationalism must not be only a tool of the nativist right wing, nor must that right wing be allowed to define American nationalism. Nationalism need not be xenophobic; it can be inclusionary, cross-ethnic, and progressive, which is how Obama has defined it. He hopes that his concept of American unity and community will push us to see one another as brothers and sisters who, because we share a history together, also share a future together as one people.

Michael Lind wrote further about the importance of embracing an inclusive, singular national narrative of our country's history with which Americans of every background can identify as their own:

An allergy to the idea of a national history is an understandable reaction, but it is mistaken -- as mistaken as the idea that nationalism in politics is, by its very nature, the ally of intolerance and tyranny. Just as there is a liberal and enlightened nationalism, distinct from illiberal nativism, so there can be a conception of national history that is not simply a tool of political regimentation or a weapon in the arsenal of a dominant class, race, or ethnic group....What is more, to the extent that liberal nationalism de-emphasizes race, religion, and political belief as the criteria that define nationhood, it becomes necessary to put more weight on a common public memory....

Americans share common national ancestors, whatever their genetic ancestors. Even if our genetic grandparents came from Finland or Indonesia, as Americans, we are all descendants of George Washington -- and his slaves.

Even in writing this, I want to be crystal clear about what I'm saying, so that nothing is misconstrued. I'm emphatically not anyone should tone down their criticisms of this country's flaws or injustices, whether in the present or the past. To be more specific, I am not saying that black or brown or red or yellow or gay folks, or anyone who feels marginalized should keep their thoughts to themselves because they might scare the straight white folks.

I'm saying that there has to be a way we can do what needs doing, to shine a light on the problems and injustices in our country, while still publicly embracing a commitment to the whole country, the whole community. We have to do both of those things at the same time, over and over again, in order to get our point across successfully and persuade people to join our movement. If we don't do that, we can't solve those problems and fix those injustices.

As politically engaged progressives, we know that this country can and must do better on a whole host of different fronts, and in order to do so we need to understand our history in full. A history that emphasizes only our crimes and ignores the progress is but the mirror image of one that does the opposite -- one that solely bathes our history in glory and righteousness. And if those are the only two options, many middle-of-the-road Americans, in particular whites but others as well, are likely to be more attracted to the Pollyanna-ish view simply because it sounds more familiar and makes them feels better.

We progressives have to make sure that we present a balanced picture. That way we can get those people who sometimes forget about the crimes our country has committed to remember them and to work toward reversing their effects, rather than dismiss our criticisms as "anti-American" because we talk only about the negatives. We have to present our case as representing the true American values, and contrast them to the values of those whom we oppose.

This is the way Barack Obama speaks about America's past, present and future. We can see this approach in his remarks of July 4, 2012:

On that July day, our Founders declared their independence. But they only declared it; it would take another seven years to win the war. Fifteen years to forge a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Nearly 90 years, and a great Civil War, to abolish slavery. Nearly 150 years for women to win the right to vote. Nearly 190 years to enshrine voting rights. And even now, we're still perfecting our union, still extending the promise of America.

That includes making sure the American dream endures for all those -- like these men and women -- who are willing to work hard, play by the rules and meet their responsibilities. For just as we remain a nation of laws, we have to remain a nation of immigrants. And that's why, as another step forward, we're lifting the shadow of deportation from serving -- from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children. It's why we still need a DREAM Act -- to keep talented young people who want to contribute to our society and serve our country. It's why we need -- why America's success demands -- comprehensive immigration reform.

Because the lesson of these 236 years is clear -- immigration makes America stronger. Immigration makes us more prosperous. And immigration positions America to lead in the 21st century. And these young men and women are testaments to that. No other nation in the world welcomes so many new arrivals. No other nation constantly renews itself, refreshes itself with the hopes, and the drive, and the optimism, and the dynamism of each new generation of immigrants. You are all one of the reasons that America is exceptional. You're one of the reasons why, even after two centuries, America is always young, always looking to the future, always confident that our greatest days are still to come.

That first paragraph represents what Obama, in Charleston during his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, called an "honest accounting of America's history." The next two paragraphs connect his vision of America and its core values to the policies he is proposing going forward. Past, present, future.

Those who have fought for equality have long sought to connect that idea to America's fundamental principles, to our own history. Frederick Douglass did it, even in the speech discussed above, as did the black abolitionist David Walker a generation earlier, who called on us to "Hear your languages, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776."

So did Martin Luther King Jr. in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," where he predicted that the civil rights movement would succeed because "the goal of America is freedom," and in his "I Have A Dream" speech, in which he proclaimed that the dream he described that day was "deeply rooted in the American dream."

So did Harvey Milk when he said: "All men are created equal. Now matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about."

So did Barbara Jordan, who noted, "What the people want is simple. They want an America as good as its promise."

And so did Barack Obama in Selma, at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March, when he identified those who walked and bled on that bridge as the ones who truly represented what America is supposed to be:

What could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people -- the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many -- coming together to shape their country's course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

Progressives must criticize, that is crucial. But we must also inspire, because inspiration is how we motivate action.

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