Today’s militant leftists not only spread lies about America’s present but generate even more damaging distortions about the nation’s past – and in so doing differentiate themselves from the radical idealists of yesteryear.
Contemporary followers of Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill view the entire American experience as a disgrace, even a crime. They stress the nation’s guilt in committing “genocide” against Native Americans, enslaving millions of Africans, stealing Mexican land, despoiling the pristine environment, oppressing working people everywhere, and blocking progressive change with an imperialist foreign policy. One Jake Irvin of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington recently told the Wall Street Journal: “My political belief is that the U.S. is a horrendous empire that needs to end.”
In contrast, the radicals and revolutionaries of the past cloaked themselves in patriotic symbols and proclaimed their desire to call the nation back to its own highest ideals. From Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas to Paul Robeson and Abbie Hoffman, these agitators proudly quoted Jefferson, Lincoln, or Tom Paine, and agreed with the nation’s mainstream that Americanism (at least as they defined it) represented the “last, best hope of earth.” Even the Communist Party USA unblushingly honored national heroes: when they dispatched their fighters to support fellow Stalinists in the Spanish Civil War, the volunteers called themselves “The Abraham Lincoln Brigade” not the “Vladimir Lenin Brigade.” Stalin’s personal friend Paul Robeson achieved mainstream popularity with his “Ballad for Americans,” treating the Revolutionary War as a heroic struggle – not a malevolent conspiracy by greedy slaveholders (as it’s often portrayed today).
Despite his personal dalliance with the Communist Party, composer Aaron Copland crafted loving tributes to the American spirit, achieving vast popularity with works from his nationalist period (“Appalachian Spring,” “A Lincoln Portrait,” “Rodeo,” “Billy the Kid”), inventing a distinctive musical language of pioneers and open spaces without nods to multiculturalism or self-pity. Woody Guthrie, another embattled radical, proudly penned “This Land is Your Land,” an unblushing love song to his native soil.