Today’s Solutions: February 03, 2023

Ode’s executive editor Jay Walljasper on why real patriots are in the streets, not in the White House.

Jay Walljasper | July 2004 issue
As a child learning lessons at school, I believed that my country was the greatest in the world. We had defeated Hitler in World War II, and we were now ridding the world of evil communism in places like Vietnam.
This sense of patriotism was never stronger than on the Fourth of July, when my town staged a big parade honoring America’s day of independence from England. The high points, when all of us kids ran into the street to get a closer look, were missiles from a nearby Air Force base that rolled by on enormous trucks. The crowd would always grow silent, and then clap in a quiet, reverential way.
I shudder now to think of that, just as I shuddered at reports of U.S. cruelty and torture coming out of Iraq. Proud feelings about being an American are not as simple as they used to be. I understand how our current military, economic, and environmental policies look like reckless, arrogant, destructive acts to most of the world.
But I remember something else about the Fourth of July that lifts my spirits. One year anti-war protesters appeared along the parade route, waving handpainted signs that compared Ho Chi Minh with George Washington. This was before opposition to the war had become widespread, and it seemed pretty subversive stuff to me. But no police came to arrest them, and no one from the crowd harrassed them. It struck me, even then, as a fitting celebration of what was great about our country.
Indeed, the spirit of dissent is one of America’s great virtues. In breaking away from the British king, our founding fathers established one of the first societies in history built upon the principles of liberty, equality, and democracy. These ideals have been imperfectly followed, of course, over the past two centuries, but brave people have always stood up to point this out.
In recent decades, American civil rights marchers, environmental activists, feminists, and gay rights advocates have inspired similar (and sometimes more influential) movements in many other countries. You can also thank radical American idealists for ideas like the eight-hour workday, national parks, and an internet owned by no one – even if today we as a nation work longer hours, lag behind in protecting the environment, and tolerate corporations who want to corral information as a commercial commodity. And don’t forget the music! I’d rank jazz, blues, rock, country, soul, gospel, bluegrass, Cajun, rockabilly, Tex-Mex, and hip-hop as American contributions to global civilization second to none.
I think it’s significant that all the treasures I invoke here, except the internet, were conceived on the margins of American society. Scruffy idealists, ardent activists, and unruly kids with guitars are what made America great. I understood that, in my own way, even as a kid. The Revolutionary War fascinated me, and I read about it constantly. Not just Washington and Jefferson but the raggedy heroes who actually ignited the movement for independence – firebrand agitator Sam Adams, African-American martyr Crispus Attucks, and radical journalist Thomas Paine (who my school was named after). It wasn’t too long before I began to realize that the protesters at the Fourth of July parade in long hair were just as patriotic as the Air Force cadets marching alongside the missiles in crisp blue uniforms. Maybe more so.
And that’s what still makes me proud of America. Think of the millions of people who marched against the Iraq war last year, and the many millions more who now admit it was a mistake.

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