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.
Today’s radicals feel embarrassed by the leftwing flag-waving of 70 years ago, and insist that Americans should feel guilty rather than proud of their nation’s past and its role in the world. Cindy Sheehan, who became a worldwide celebrity by exploiting her son’s combat death in Iraq, recently posted a heart-rending rant on Michael Moore’s website, declaring: “I often have to ask myself why we, as Americans, so blindly follow our leaders down this path of violent destruction, and it has always been so. From the genocide and virtual extinction of our native population to dehumanizing black people so they could be used as human chattel and still be oppressed, even today, to still be the only so-called ‘civilized nation’ that executes people…Before we can change the world we have to look in our hearts and change ourselves. Before Casey was KIA in Iraq I led the life of rampant consumerism that wreaked havoc on my soul and the environment.”
Her personal guilt conforms to Colorado University professor Ward Churchill’s belief that the people who died in the World Trade Center could rightly be classified as “little Eichmanns” who deserved their violent, painful demise. Like Sheehan, he goes back to America’s “original sins” – maltreatment of Indians and enslavement of blacks- to argue against any sense of pride or patriotism for what this nation accomplished.
This negativity about the past directly threatens the nation’s future: spreading the idea among the younger generation that the entire American project isn’t worth sustaining or defending. Of course, the idea of conscious “genocide” again Native Americans is absurd – despite Cindy Sheehan’s claims of “virtual extinction of our native population” there are more self-identified Indians alive today than a hundred—or even two hundred – years ago.
Moreover, the assimilation and massive intermarriage with white people (even Bill Clinton claimed to be “part Cherokee”) erased far more self-identified Indians than the relatively rare (but undeniably loathsome) massacres by whites. Concerning slavery, Americans never invented it or instituted it – we inherited it, and with such great discomfort that anti-slavery activists were far better represented among the founding fathers (Franklin, Adams, Hamilton) than those who made an active case for slavery. David Brion Davis, the Yale professor who’s written magisterially about the history of the peculiar institution, makes clear the positive role of the American Revolution and its ideals in giving life (after many millennia of slavery) to the abolitionist movement around the world that ultimately put an end to this savage oppression. The United States, in other words, played a unique, prominent role in ending the institution, but played no role in establishing it.
These arguments matter because a nation embarrassed about its past, apologetic about its very existence, is a nation unable to defend itself from its enemies. The Fourth of July offers a unique opportunity to tell true stories about the land we love: not as a flawless paradise, but as a uniquely blessed haven that has provided more opportunities for more disparate populations than any nation in human history. In terms of our role in the wider world, one need not defend every decision by past leaders to recognize that no country has ever benefited the rest of humanity as consistently and abundantly as the United States.
In other words, the best response to America bashing radicals involves celebration, not castigation – an emphasis on joy, gratitude and pride rather than guilt and despair. Among other things, it’s simply more fun to be a patriotic American than a doom-embracing, “anti-imperialist” internationalist. There’s not better occasion than the anniversary of our independence to emphasize our uniqueness and, yes exceptionalism – to light a few firecrackers, eat some cherry pie, and join our neighbors in rejoicing in the Glorious Fourth.