So Conservatives Wave the Flag While Liberals Burn It?

Culture Watch
tags: pledge of allegiance, flag burning

Mr. Dreier teaches politics and public policy at Occidental College and is coauthor of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century(University Press of Kansas). Mr. Flacks teaches sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and is author of Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (Columbia University Press).

This July 4th is likely to be the most fervent in many years. Since the bombing of the World Trade Center last September 11, the nation has seen a dramatic increase in public expressions of patriotism. This includes the sale of CDs with patriotic songs and the number of people proudly displaying the stars-and-stripes on their cars, homes, businesses, t-shirts, caps, lapel pins, and even tattoos on various parts of their bodies. Retail stores are redesigning everything from coffee mugs to bikinis in red-white-and-blue. Since September 11, bills to make the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory in public schools have been introduced in seven states; half the states already require it.

Most pundits interpret this as a sign that the nation is in a" conservative" mood, but the reality is more complicated. Loyalty to country is neither conservative nor liberal. The ways we express our patriotism are as diverse and contentious as our nation. It depends on the core values one associates with the United States.

A case in point is the current controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance. In an incredible act of bad political timing, a panel of judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on June 26 that the words"under God" in the Pledge violate the First Amendment, requiring the separation of church and state. The controversy over the Pledge was no doubt heightened because it comes at a time when expressions of patriotism are at a fever pitch. Would the same furor have erupted if the dispute was over the phrase"with liberty and justice for all"?

Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike attacked the court's decision for undermining one of the nation's most hallowed patriotic traditions. President George W. Bush branded the ruling"ridiculous" and Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi called the judges"stupid." Just hours after the ruling, the U.S. Senate voted 99 to 0 to express strong disagreement with the decision. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic majority leader, called the ruling"just nuts" and in symbolic defiance mobilized his colleagues to recite the Pledge on the Senate floor. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, led many House members to gather on the Capitol steps to recite the Pledge and sing"God Bless America."

But, ironically, the guardians of tradition were not, in fact, defending the traditional Pledge. The words"under God" were not part of the original pledge, written in 1892. They were added by Congress in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, when many political leaders believed that the nation was threatened by godless communism.

Thanks to the news coverage of the controversy, Americans learned that what we consider to be"tradition" is constantly evolving. They also encountered -- probably for the first time -- the name of Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge. But lost in the public dispute was any understanding of who Bellamy really was and what he was trying to accomplish.

Bellamy was a Baptist minister and leading Christian socialist who was ousted from his Boston church for his sermons depicting Jesus as a socialist. Bellamy wrote the Pledge in 1892, during the Gilded Age, when reformers were outraged by the behavior of corporate robber barons who were exploiting workers, gouging consumers, and corrupting politics with their money. Their movement to control corporate power and the culture of materialism had many fronts. Bellamy hoped that the Pledge would promote a different moral vision to counter the rampant greed he believed was undermining the nation. Bellamy intended the line,"one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all," to express a more collective and egalitarian vision of America.

Bellamy penned the Pledge for Youth's Companion, a magazine for young people published in Boston with a circulation of about 500,000. A few years earlier, the magazine had sponsored a largely successful campaign to sell American flags to public schools. In 1891, the magazine hired Bellamy -- whose first cousin, Edward Bellamy, was the famous socialist author of the utopian novel Looking Backward (1888) -- to organize a public relations campaign to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America by promoting use of the flag in public schools. Bellamy gained the support of the National Education Association, along with President Benjamin Harrison and Congress, for a national ritual observance in the schools, and wrote the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the program's flag salute ceremony.

Bellamy believed that unbridled capitalism, materialism, and individualism betrayed America's promise. This view was widely shared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many American radicals and progressive reformers proudly asserted their patriotism. To them, America stood for basic democratic values -- economic and social equality, mass participation in politics, free speech and civil liberties, elimination of the second-class citizenship of women and racial minorities, a welcome mat for the world's oppressed people. The reality of corporate power, right-wing xenophobia, and social injustice only fueled progressives' allegiance to these principles and the struggle to achieve them.

Most Americans are unaware that much of our patriotic culture -- including many of the leading symbols and songs that have become increasingly popular since September 11 -- were created by writers of decidedly left-wing sympathies.

Consider the lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:"Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Emma Lazarus was a poet of considerable reputation in her day, a well-known figure in literary circles. She was a strong supporter of Henry George and his"socialistic" single tax program, and a friend of William Morris, a leading British socialist. Her welcome to the"wretched refuse" of the earth, written in 1883, was an effort to project an inclusive and egalitarian definition of the American dream.

The words to"America the Beautiful" were written in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College. Bates was an accomplished poet. Her book, America the Beautiful and Other Poems, expressed outrage at U.S. imperialism in the Phillippines. Indeed, Bates was part of the progressive reform circles in the Boston area concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women's suffrage. She was also an ardent feminist, and for decades lived with and loved her Wellesley colleague, Katharine Coman, an economist and social activist.

"America the Beautiful" not only speaks to the beauty of the American continent but also reflects her view that U.S. imperialism undermines the nation's core values of freedom and liberty. The poem's final words --"and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea" -- are an appeal for social justice rather than the pursuit of wealth.

Many Americans consider Woody Guthrie's song"This Land is Your Land," penned in 1940, to be our unofficial national anthem. Guthrie was inspired to write"This Land" as an answer to Irving Berlin's popular"God Bless America," which he thought failed to recognize that it was the"people" to whom America belonged. The words to"This Land is Your Land" reflect Guthrie's fusion of patriotism and support for the underdog. In this song, Guthrie celebrates America's natural beauty and bounty, but criticizes the country for its failure to share its riches, reflected in the song's last and least-known verse:

"One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple/By the relief office I saw my people./As they stood hungry I stood there wondering/If this land was made for you and me?"

Guthrie was not alone in combining patriotism and radicalism during the Depression and World War II. In that period of the Popular Front, many American composers, novelists, artists and playwrights engaged in similar projects. In the early thirties, for example, a group of young composers and musicians -- including Marc Blitzstein (author of the musical"The Cradle Will Rock"), Charles Seeger (a well-known composer and musicologist and father of folksinger Pete Seeger), and Aaron Copland -- formed the" composers collective" to write music that would serve the cause of the working class. They turned to American roots and folk music for inspiration. Many of their compositions -- including Copland's"Fanfare for the Common Man" and"Lincoln Portrait" -- are now patriotic musical standards, regularly performed at major civic events.

Earl Robinson was a member of the composers collective who pioneered the effort to combine patriotism and progressivism. In 1939, he teamed with lyricist John La Touche to write"Ballad for Americans" that was performed on the CBS radio network by Paul Robeson, accompanied by chorus and orchestra. This 11-minute cantata provided a musical review of American history, depicted as a struggle between the"nobodies who are everybody" and an elite who failed to understand the real, democratic essence of America.

Robeson, at the time one of the best known performers on the world stage, became, through this work, a voice of America. Broadcasts and recordings of"Ballad for Americans" (by Bing Crosby as well as Robeson) were immensely popular. In the summer of 1940, it was performed at the national conventions of both the Republican and Communist parties. The work soon became a staple in school choral performances, but it was literally ripped out of many public school songbooks after Robinson and Robeson were identified with the radical left and blacklisted during the McCarthy period. Since then, however,"Ballad for Americans" has been periodically revived, notably during the bicentennial celebration in 1976, when a number of pop and country singers performed it in concerts and on TV.

During World War II, with lyricist Lewis Allen, Robinson co-authored another patriotic hit,"The House I Live In." Its lyrics asked, and then answered, the question:"What is America to me?", posed in the first line of the song. The song evokes America as place where all races can live freely, where one can speak one's mind, where the cities as well as the natural landscapes are beautiful. The song was made a hit by Frank Sinatra in 1945. Sinatra also starred in an Oscar-winning movie short -- written by Albert Maltz, later one of the Hollywood Ten -- in which he sang"The House I Live In" to challenge bigotry, represented in the movie by a gang of kids who had roughed up a Jewish boy.

"The House I Live In," like the"Ballad for Americans," was exceedingly popular for several years, but became controversial during the McCarthy period and has largely disappeared from public consciousness. Its coauthor, Lewis Allen, was actually Abel Meeropol, a high school teacher who had also penned,"Strange Fruit," the anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holiday. In the 1950s, Meeropol and his wife adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg when they were executed as atom spies. Despite this, Sinatra kept the song in his repertoire.

Perhaps the most astonishing performance of"The House I Live In" was at the nationally televised commemoration of the centenary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, when Sinatra sang it as the finale to the program, with President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan sitting directly in front of him. Only a handful of Americans could have grasped the political irony of that moment: Sinatra performing a patriotic anthem written by blacklisted writers to a President who, as head of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s, helped create Hollywood's purge of radicals. Sinatra's own left-wing (and nearly blacklisted) past, and the history of the song itself, has been obliterated from public memory.

Even during the sixties, American progressives continued to seek ways to fuse their love of country with their opposition to the national government's policies. The March on Washington in 1963 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King famously quoted the words to"My Country 'Tis of Thee." Phil Ochs, then part of a new generation of politically conscious singer-songwriters who emerged during the 1960s, wrote an anthem in the Guthrie vein,"Power and Glory", that coupled love of country with a strong plea for justice and equality. Interestingly, this song later became part of the repertoire of the U.S. Army band. And in 1967, in a famous anti-war speech on the steps of the Capitol, Norman Thomas, the aging leader of the Socialist Party, proclaimed,"I come to cleanse the American Flag, not burn it."

In recent decades, Bruce Springsteen has most closely followed in the Guthrie tradition. From"Born in the USA," to his songs about Tom Joad (the militant protagonist in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath), to his recent anthem for the victims of the September 11 tragedy ("My City of Ruins"), whom he urges to" come on rise up!", Springsteen has championed the downtrodden while challenging America to live up to its ideals. Indeed, by performing both"Born in the USA" and"Land of Hope and Dreams" at benefits for the families of World Trade Center casualties, Springsteen coupled his anger at injustice with his belief in the nation's promise.

In each major period of 20th century history--the Progressive era, the Depression, World War II, and the postwar era--American radicals and progressives expressed an American patriotism rooted in democratic values, and consciously aimed at challenging jingoism and"my country right or wrong" thinking.

Many Americans believe that the left is"anti-patriotic" (and even anti-American), while the political right truly expresses the American spirit and reveres its symbols It has become conventional wisdom that conservatives wave the American flag while leftists burn it. Patriotic Americans display the flag on their homes; progressives turn it upside down to show contempt.

Every day, millions of Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, sing"American the Beautiful" and"This Land is Your Land," and memorize the words on the Statue of Liberty without knowing the names of their authors, their political inspiration, or the historical context in which they were written. The progressive authors of much of America's patriotic iconography rejected blind nationalism, militaristic drum beating and sheeplike conformism. So it would be a dire mistake to allow, by default, jingoism to become synonymous with patriotism and the American spirit.

Throughout our nation's history, radicals and reformers have viewed their movements as profoundly patriotic. They believed that America's core claims -- fairness, equality, freedom, justice -- were their own.

America now confronts a new version of the Gilded Age. The gap between rich and poor is widening. The unbridled greed and political influence-peddling demonstrated by the top executives of Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and other large corporations has triggered another wave of public outrage demanding more regulation of business. The behavior of large HMOs and pharmaceutical companies angers Americans who can't afford the cost for basic health care. The growing power of American-based global firms, who show no loyalty to this country in terms of where they move their jobs, the taxes they pay, or the environment they pollute, has led to a grassroots movement for fairer trade.

The recent controversy over the Pledge has centered on the two words"under God." But if Francis Bellamy were alive today, he'd no doubt be more concerned that the actions of big business and many politicians are undermining his vision of a nation that promises"liberty and justice for all."

An earlier version of this article appeared in the June 3, 2002 issue of The Nation magazine.

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More Comments:

Karen Mendenhall - 10/16/2002

I'm trying to track down when the National Anthem began to be played at ball games and the like. I have the impression that the rise of playing the NA began w/ McCarthyism. Can you provide any assistance? Thanks, Karen