03 July 2006

Political Hope on Independence Day

"The significance of ideal ends and meanings is, indeed, closely connected with the fact that there are in life all sorts of things that are evil to us because we would have them otherwise. Were existing conditions wholly good, the notion of possibilities to be realized would never emerge." - John Dewey (1934)

Well before I had any idea who Robert Mapplethorpe was, indeed before his name became common currency in American cultural politics, I'd seen this image as part of the the cover art on his friend Patti Smith's album Easter.

That was 1978, shortly after I graduated from college, during years when questions of patriotism hardly were on anyone's lips, surely not on mine. These days there are "patriots" all around. It bears asking however what it means to be patriotic. This image by Mapplethorpe is a good way of focusing such reflections. (I must say that insofar as any of the 'my country right or wrong' crowd will read this, I find it quite delicious to invoke Mapplethorpe as a point of departure.) Being a patriot does not mean unswerving loyalty to any particular government or administration. It does not mean love of this or that place. It means that one is inspired by and committed to some set of ideals and to the possibilities they embody. And it means taking that inspiration as a basis for action (an imperative that is not satisfied by, for example, driving a flag-festooned SUV).

Mapplethorpe's image has stuck with me over the years. Perhaps oddly, and perhaps contrary to his intent, I find it inspiring. And in the current political circumstance I find this picture of a frayed and tattered flag especially relevant. I am committed to the liberty and equality for which the flag stands. I worry, though, that the policies of our current government may tear it beyond repair or recognition. I hope that that is not the case. And as evidence of possibilities I will point to just two rececnt, relaated examples. The first is the stand taken by First Lt. Ehren Watada (U.S. Army) who has refused orders to deploy to Iraq on the grounds that the war is illegal and that, as an officer, he is bound to refuse orders to partake in illegal actions. The second, is the decision this past week by the US Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Runsfeld in which the majority of a very conservative court held that equality before the law (as embodied in international agreements to which the US is signatory) applies to the prisoners being held at Guantanamo, after all. This, I thnk, is a momentous decision.

Lt. Watada and the Court majority are not just mouthing principles; they are doing things with our principles. They are calling the Bush administration to account, insisting that our government must acknowledge freedpm and equality and build them into its policies. In the process they are mending the frayed and tattered flag. They are holding out possibilities that are truly patriotic. That is a basis for hope. Have a peaceful 4th of July.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write insightfully;

"Being a patriot...means that one is inspired by and committed to some set of ideals and to the possibilities they embody. And it means taking that inspiration as a basis for action (an imperative that is not satisfied by, for example, driving a flag-festooned SUV).

"Mapplethorpe's image has stuck with me...I find it inspiring...I am committed to the liberty and equality for which the flag stands. I worry, though, that the policies of our current government may tear it beyond repair or recognition."

So, what kind of actions do you, and people who aspire to be patriots of the kind you describe, take? How do these thoughts inspire your day to day existence and interactions? What possibilities does the "right" kind of patriotism hold?

04 July, 2006 16:48  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Not to be glib, but a good first step is to think for yourself. That is what I try to impress on my students. A good second step is to speak out ... not just to those in power, but also to your fellow citizens, about things that may seem "uncomfortable" or "impolite": economic inequality, war, race, religious bigotry (in its various manifestations), freedom and its vicissitudes, and so forth. That opens space for politics and for dissent. A good third step is to listen when (hopefully) those others speak back.

04 July, 2006 19:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response though I perhaps expected something different given your exhortation of doing things rather than just saying things...

"Watada and the Court majority are not just mouthing principles; they are doing things with our principles."

but then I suppose, you would argue, words are deeds...

04 July, 2006 20:18  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

In fact, words are deeds - as I have learned (once again) in a painful way recently. But beyond that you asked about what one might do in one's "day to day existence" ... there are other things to do in less mundane circumstances.

05 July, 2006 07:10  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

And, as a follow up, when I say that Lt. Watanda and the Court majority are not just "mouthing principles" I mean that they are not engaging in cheap talk (like plastering your SUV with magnetic yellow ribbons to show "support" for other peoples' sons who are off fighting). Through their speech, thier words, they are holding the administration and its policies to account.

05 July, 2006 07:27  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks again for your response...though I am not sure I follow it entirely.

It is clear as you say that "Watanda and the Court majority...are not engaging in cheap talk"

The distinction you highlight, and the reason you uphold the actions of the Court and Watanda, is that of mouthing principles (cheap talk), over words used to hold people to account - not mouthing of principles but principles backed up by actions.

You also wrote..."there are other things to do in less mundane circumstances." Here I get a little confused - most of us spend the majority of our lives in circumsatnces one might describe as "mundane." Though I imagine that Lt. Ehren Watada would prefer it otherwise, he has found himself faced with less than mundane circumstances, similarly members of the court. While you are likely correct that those who feel they are standing up for principles by "plastering your SUV with magnetic yellow ribbons to show "support" for other peoples' sons who are off fighting" - are engaging in cheap talk - could it be that some are just people in the "mundane" day to day existence of life who have principles they are trying to express with actions. A few perhaps have sons in the military.

I suppose what I am saying is, it might not always be that easy to distinguish "cheap talk" from principled speech and sometimes our circumstances constrain and limit the actions we are able to take.

05 July, 2006 09:36  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Your point about relative opportunities to dissent or show support is on the mark. Still, I suspect you are being extremely charitable in your assessment of the percentage of folks who have children in the service relative to thoses who sport magnetic yellow ribbons. That is especially so given the demographics of those who in fact are serving. How many people with whom you discuss the war (as just one possible topic) would support universal conscription; how manay of those have sons who would be eligible or would include girls i nthe draft? I raised this issue in an earlier post. It is a difficult issue - I have sons and my biggest fear is that thye might someday be sucked into service in some ill-conceived, opportunistic military conflict. I am of two minds about the draft for that reason. But a real debate about conscription (without loopholes) would focus everyone's attention.

On the more basic point - Watada & the Court are speaking; what else is a decision or a refusal to obey an order?

05 July, 2006 12:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks again for your response...

I have just a couple of things to add. My original comment/question was motivated by the idea that perhaps there are more people than we imagine that would like to be patriotic in the ways you applaud. However perhaps they are unsure of what they can do and how to go about "living" the values you espouse. While I applaud your comment that people should be encouraged to think for themselves we all need a little help from our friends, or fellow citizens sometimes.

So, here are a couple of things I think are a little more "mundane" than the examples you gave but might be added to your list of reasons for "hope."

First, though you mention the demographics of the military you do not give specifics - this, I realize is not the venue - but there is a web site run by educators who teach "radical math" that can help with specifics. The site is really not that radical, it simply demonstrates ways to teach math and engender critical thinking about social justice at the same time. One of their lesson plans directs students to compare the demographics of the military with that of their neighborhood. You can check out the site at http://www.radicalmath.org/

The other site "ideal bite" is devoted to educating people about environmental issues. Here are the goals of the authors in their own words:
"The concept behind Ideal Bite is an easy one — if we all knew what to do in our day-to-day lives to help impact the planet and our communities positively and painlessly (and without preachiness), we would all do it. And if that know-how came to us in a fun, pithy, sometimes irreverent way — so much the better."
I am relatively new to ideal bite, but it seems to offer good advice. However it clearly suffers from the issue that faces many advocates of environmentally friendly consumption - it is often prohibitively expensive for the average working family. Though given they are a web based source perhaps their audience has a demographic skew anyway. They are also of course encouraging consumption and perhaps merely massaging the conscience of the middle class. Their comment about positive impact "painlessly" is troubling. But you should judge for yourself. Their web address is http://idealbite.com/

05 July, 2006 19:18  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I appreciate your quesitons and comments and suggesitons. and I take your point regarding "What is to Be Done?" quite seriously. Thanks.

Your suggesiton abouht radical math brought to mind work by Robert Moses who earlier in life was instrumental in the civil rights movement and now has inspired the "Algebra Project" (http://www.algebra.org/). His claim is that mathemaatical literacy is crucial to both econoomic productivity and citizenship in the contemporary world. The project uses innovative methods to teach mostly African American kids math in high school. It is a really interesting project.

One of my own graduate students once wrote a short essaay on why teaching statistics was important politically that runs along much the same liness - statistical literacy is important for citizens in a demcoracy. Absent such literacy you are at the mercy of the disemblers even more than you might otherwise be!

In any case, thanks again for writing. I will check out the pages you recommend.

05 July, 2006 21:24  
Blogger JoeCollins said...

Do you assign the same cheapness and futility to those who still sport their 2004 Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers as you do to those with the yellow ribbons? (I am aware that a few Bush stickers are around, but they are understandably fewer.)

Are political conservatives failing to think for themselves when marginally more Republicans than Democrats dislike how Congress is behaving?

Is it impossible to have agreed with the war without enlisting? Is that logically inconsistent with the belief that universal conscription is bad public policy? Some of your previous statements seem to say "If you agree with the war, why aren't you fighting it?" Can a person incapable of serving (age, disability) have a meaningful opinion in favor of the war? If they can, when why not somebody else who chooses not to fight?

05 July, 2006 21:34  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Joe, Good quesitons .... Here in Western NY there are lots of W stickers on the pickups. Unfortunately, there has been very little updating. That said, I think Kerry simply dropped the ball on the war and is a political weenie. He should have called Bush a liar and taken him to task for that. He didn't.

As far a Repubblicans disliking Congress, big surprise! Reublicans are notoriously unhappy with Washington (remember Reagan?) generally and Congress in particular. So I am unsure that you think you gain from that observation. Republicans just don't like government - except when they can siddle up to the trough!

Now letss get to the issue of the war. I teach at a rich, largely white University. I have LOTS of conservative students - in fact many of my best students and my favorite ones at that. But it does seem hypocritical in the extreme for them to be sitting in my class (on patriotism) cheering the war while the military is disproportionately poor anad minority. Sorry, but the democrapghics are simply a fact.
Any conservative 18 year old ought to think hard about enlisting if war is such agood idea.

And no, being not of draft age does not mean you cannot have opnions on military affairs. But I find lots of hawks who, given the opportunity to serve, found it too inconvenient (virtually all of the current high-ranking administraiotn officials fall into that category); and I also encounter LOTS of hawks around here who would be averse to sending their own sons (let alone daughters) off to fight in Iraq.

Hope that clers things up for you.

05 July, 2006 21:51  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Hey Joe, here is a PS.

I realize that inplicit in your comment re: all those Kerry/Edwards supporters is the notion that thye ight not also be sporting magnetic yeollow ribbons. There realaly is no need to assume that Democrats are not equally patriotic in the facile sense I criticise.

06 July, 2006 12:53  
Blogger JoeCollins said...

I am reminded of a piece by Joel Stein that ran in the LA Times, "Warriors And Wusses", in which he declared "I don't support the troops." Every right-winger with a website or radio show felt compelled to denounce it at length, but I found it to be a thought provoking piece. What does it really mean to support the troops but not the war? I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. Some have dismissed it as humorous, but Stein is smart enough to know that he'd probably get death threats for something like that regardless of the intended tone, so I don't think Stein would have written that column without some deliberate seriousness. I'd link to it, but the LA Times has moved it into the archive... Selected quotes are available at the previously mentioned websites, but my favorites are these:

"But I'm not for the war. And being against the war and saying you support the troops is one of the wussiest positions the pacifists have ever taken — and they’re wussy by definition. It's as if the one lesson they took away from Vietnam wasn't to avoid foreign conflicts with no pressing national interest but to remember to throw a parade afterward."
"But when you volunteer for the U.S. military, you pretty much know you're not going to be fending off invasions from Mexico and Canada. So you're willingly signing up to be a fighting tool of American imperialism, for better or worse. Sometimes you get lucky and get to fight ethnic genocide in Kosovo, but other times it's Vietnam."

Regarding "cheap" speech, bumper stickers, t-shirts and the like are all inherently cheap speech. But more than that, bumper stickers are emotive artifacts. This leads me to think that patriotism is more of a motivation than it is a descriptive property. I am willing to accept that individuals might take actions I personally see as unpatriotic, but at the same time I can accept that those individuals are motivated by a sense of patriotism.

Or perhaps patriotism is an antiquated virtue. I think patriotism does in fact require some degree of "right or wrong" support of one's country. This sort of patriotism is most fully embodied in the Apology of Socrates. But can anybody read the Apology without thinking Socrates was sort of stupid?

08 July, 2006 13:30  

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