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“Jelly Belly Flag Wavers”: Remembering Why The Right Doesn’t Own The Stars and Stripes

Like many men who volunteered for the U.S. Army in World War II, my late father never boasted about his years in uniform. A patriot to his core, he nevertheless despised what he called the “jelly-bellied flag flappers.” But in the decade or so before he passed away, he began to sport a small, eagle-shaped pin on his lapel, known as a “ruptured duck.” Displaying the mark of his military service said that this lifelong liberal loved his country as much as any conservative — and had proved it.

Are such gestures still necessary today? For decades right-wingers have sought to establish a near-monopoly on patriotic expression, all too often with the dumb collusion of some of its adversaries on the left. But on July 4, when we celebrate the nation’s revolutionary founding, I always find myself pondering just how fraudulent and full of irony this right-wing tactic is. It is only our collective ignorance of our own history that permits conservatives to assert their exclusive franchise on the flag, the Declaration of Independence, and the whole panoply of national symbols, without provoking brutal mockery.

But we need not play their style of politics to argue that the left is equally entitled to a share of America’s heritage — indeed, in the light of history, perhaps more entitled than its rivals. So let’s begin, in honor of the holiday, at the official beginning.

Although “right” and “left” didn’t define political combat at that time on these shores, there isn’t much doubt that behind the American Revolution, and in particular the Declaration of Independence, was not only a colonial elite but a cabal of left-wing radicals as well.

What other description would have fitted such figures as Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, who declared their contempt for monarchy and aristocracy? Their wealthier, more cautious colleagues in the Continental Congress regarded Adams as a reckless adventurer “of bankrupt fortune,” and Paine as a rabble-rousing scribbler. Popular democracy was itself a wildly radical doctrine in the colonial era, tamed in the writing of the Constitution by the new nation’s land-owning elites and slaveholders.

The right-wingers of the Revolutionary era were Tories — colonists who remained loyal to the British crown, fearful of change and, in their assistance to the occupying army of George III, the precise opposite of patriots. Only from the perspective of two centuries of ideological shift can the republican faith of the Founding Fathers be described as “conservative.”

The Civil War, too, was a struggle between left and right, between patriots and … well, in those days the Confederate leaders were deemed traitors (an epithet now usually avoided out of a decent concern for Southern sensibilities). Academics will argue forever about that war’s underlying economic and social causes, but it was the contemporary left that sought to abolish slavery and preserve the Union, while the right fought to preserve slavery and dissolve the Union. Today, reverence for the Confederacy remains the emotional province of extremely right-wing Southern politicians and intellectuals (as well as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi skinheads, and not a few members of the Tea Party). These disreputable figures denigrate Lincoln, our greatest president, and wax nostalgic for the plantation culture.

At the risk of offending every furious diehard who still waves the Stars and Bars, it is fair to wonder what, exactly, is patriotic about that?

Yet another inglorious episode in the annals of conservatism preceded the global war against fascism. The so-called America First movement that opposed U.S. intervention against Hitler camouflaged itself with red, white and blue but proved to be a haven for foreign agents who were plotting against the United States. While Communists and some other radicals also initially opposed American entry into World War II for their own reasons, the broad-based left of the New Deal coalition understood the Axis threat very early. Most conservatives honorably joined the war effort after Pearl Harbor, but more than a few on the right continued to promote defeatism and appeasement even then. And with all due respect to neoconservatives and other late-arriving right-wingers, the historical roots of postwar conservatism — the “Old Right” of Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan, the Buckleys and the Kochs — can be traced to those prewar sympathizers of the Axis.

The criminal excesses of the Cold War in Vietnam and elsewhere, so eagerly indulged by the right to this day, alienated many Americans on the left from their country for a time. Conservatives seized the opportunity presented by flag-burning protests and other adolescent displays to marginalize their ideological opponents as un-American, although only a tiny minority dove off that deep end. But how many conservatives like Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh beat the Vietnam draft while liberals like John Kerry, Al Gore, and Wesley Clark all served? And who truly protected this country’s best interests back then — the politicians who dispatched 50,000 young Americans to their deaths in the rice paddies, or those who dissented?

It is a lesson we didn’t learn in time to save us from another debacle in Iraq, when dissent was again vilified – and again proved more sane and patriotic than the bloodlust of the chicken-hawks.

Yet somehow our wingers always manage to wrap themselves in Old Glory, as if it belongs to them alone. But on this holiday, and every day, it assuredly does not.

 

By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, July 2, 2013

July 4, 2013 Posted by | Independence Day | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saul Alinsky: A True American Exceptionalist

Newt Gingrich has adopted the late organizer as a punching bag, but he and Alinsky share a view of America and reverence for the Founding Fathers.

In his victory speech the night of the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich declared:

The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky…. What we are going to argue is that American exceptionalism, the American Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the American Federalist papers, the Founding Fathers of America are the source from which we draw our understanding of America. [President Obama] draws his from Saul Alinsky, radical left-wingers, and people who don’t like the classical America.”

Gingrich’s statement raises two questions. One, what is the “classical America” of the founding fathers, and two, who is Saul Alinsky?

As an historian, Gingrich should know better than to confuse compromise with consensus. There was little all-encompassing agreement among the Founding Fathers. Does Gingrich mean to stake his campaign on Alexander Hamilton’s proposal of a life term for the president? James Madison’s idea that the federal legislature should be able to veto state laws? Would he have preferred Benjamin Harrison‘s proposal that slaves should be counted as half a person for purposes of representation, or is he satisfied with the three-fifths compromise? Enough.

As to Saul Alinsky, the Chicago organizer who died when Barack Obama was a 10-year old boy in Hawaii, it is hard to figure out why Gingrich is so fixated on a man whose most notable achievement was organizing Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s to combat inhumane working conditions. You would think from Gingrich’s allusions that Alinsky must have been a Marxist, maybe even a Communist. His biographer Sanford Horwitt is clear: Alinsky was neither. Or you can just read Alinsky himself — has Gingrich? — who wrote in his 1971 Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, “To protect the free, open, questing, and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare.'”

Indeed, one of the most striking things about Rules for Radicals is how engaged Alinsky is with the very people that Gingrich positions as his opposites. Alinsky opens his book with a quotation from Thomas Paine, and draws his examples, approvingly, from the lives of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Francis Marion, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Federalist Papers.

Here’s a pop quiz. Below are four quotations. One is from Saul Alinsky, one from Newt Gingrich, one from Thomas Jefferson, and one from Thomas Paine. See if you can figure out which is which:

  1. “Let them call me rebel, and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.”
  2. “[The] eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition…. This is my credo for which I live and, if need be, die.”
  3. “I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would be hurt by the change…have a natural reaction…. I think because I’m so systematically purposeful about changing our world. [I am] much more intense, much more persistent, much more willing to take risks to get it done.”
  4. “I hope we shall crush… the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare… to challenge our government to a trail of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

It’s easy to cherry-pick quotations to serve your rhetorical point, but I am confident these lines represent the views of their authors: Paine, Alinsky, Gingrich, and Jefferson, respectively. Alinsky believed that people whose interests are not respected by government, who are maligned or discriminated against or taken advantage of, should organize to advocate for their interests. He fought against racism and for better working conditions. His politics were unequivocally left-wing, but he believed forcefully in democracy as “the best means toward achieving” the values he professed. And he believed democracy came with personal responsibility. Alinsky sounds downright Gingrichian when he criticizes “people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions.” For those people, “the fault lies not in the system but in themselves.”

So why is Gingrich so fixated on Alinsky? Maybe Gingrich is playing a game familiar to all graduate students: throw out a name you’re pretty confident few others have heard of in order to make yourself sound smart. If the name happens to sound Jewish and European, and therefore might raise the specter of a politics Alinsky himself wanted no part of, all the better. Gingrich has invented a straw man, an imagined un-American, and set him up against an imagined “classical” American past. None of that helps our political debate. As I have suggested elsewhere, bad history is worse than no history at all.

There may be reasons to criticize the real Saul Alinsky, but he belongs on the roll call of those who worked for, not against, a better America. Gingrich proclaims “American exceptionalism.” If the flawed, contentious Founding Fathers agreed on anything, it was that power does not come by divine right but rather from self-government. What better way, then, is there to show your fidelity to that spirit than to work, as Alinsky did, to “form a more perfect union”?

 

By: Andy Horowitz, The Atlantic, January 27, 2012

January 29, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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