nationalism isn't patriotic, just ask a confederate

On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stevens, the newly sworn-in Vice President of The Confederate States of America, rose to a lectern in Savannah, Georgia, and addressed a crowd gathered to champion the recent secession of 7 states from the United States of America. Eventually known as the “Corner-stone speech” Stevens then clearly explains the principles that undergird the Confederacy: “All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality. Honest labor and enterprise are left free and unrestricted in whatever pursuit they may be engaged.” He proudly asserts the Confederate Constitution is based on the “broad principle of perfect equality and justice;” indeed, Stevens’ oratory inspires, assured of its own moral high ground. Perfect equality is inspired, but the Confederacy was based on the principles of racial hierarchy, white supremacy and fear of those deemed unworthy. Calling violent oppression equality doesn’t make it good, just like calling nationalism patriotic doesn’t make it noble.

Stevens celebrates the Confederacy when he boasts, “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Explaining that secession primarily aimed to protect and defend the practice of slavery, he acknowledges that most people, including the founders, believed “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Nevertheless, he argues, “those ideas…were fundamentally wrong.” He then utters the lines that give his speech its name:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Stevens pledges his allegiance to the Confederacy, claiming he will faithfully defend and protect her. Waxing poetic about peace, rights and equality, he blames the North’s reluctance to grant independence as the cause for war. His noble claims are undermined by his determination that all men are not created equal, and that God created some beings with no rights at all. He sounds patriotic, but his Corner-stone speech reveals an important shift in his loyalty.

That a person could claim peace while pursuing war, claim unity while blaming others, or claim great power while stoking fear, is confusing until you realize Vice President Stevens was a nationalist, not a patriot.

This week our nation votes to elect governors, senators, representatives and council people. We have been arguing about how to display patriotism in the public sphere for years, but this election cycle reveals the slippage in the way we speak about what it means to be Americans. Are we patriots or nationalists? Is one noble, the other destructive? Does it matter what these words signify?

Stevens’ rhetoric prepares the way for his descendants in public service: Self-professed nationalists.

 Many of us love our country, our service members who defend it, the laws that shape it, and the symbols that represent it. We love our mythologies: a nation built on the ideal of liberty worth sacrificing for, that every person has a fair shot to improve with hard work and perseverance. We adore the fact that we overcame great odds, winning our independence, surviving a Civil War, slowly claiming a continent for ourselves, and rescuing Europe not once but twice. We are proud of our track record, and nationalism invites us to reduce it to a story of ascension for one group of people. From a nationalist point of view, the story of America is the story of White Christians who beat the odds. Patriotism, on the other hand, demands that we face our entire history. Patriotism leaves room for righting the course, for correcting mistakes, for challenging a status quo that damages vulnerable people.

Nationalism denotes a shift in loyalty from our evolving country to a specific group of people, united by the perception of shared genes or culture, while patriotism assumes that we can work together since we share a space and, perhaps, ideals. Nationalism boasts superiority over any group of people perceived to be outsiders or “others.” It organizes itself against perceived threats, rather than simply for a nation. Nationalist groups include American white supremacists, Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy, because it thrives on fear, blame and the suppression of the humanity of those deemed unworthy. Nationalism guards the door, making sure outsiders cannot bring change, while patriotism upholds ideals, and challenges us to stay true to them.

For a nationalist, making American great again very much means making America white, defining it as white, assuming it to be white, protecting the rights and culture of whites.  

A patriot, on the other hand, remains loyal to the idea of America, aligning herself to the concepts that were uttered in the Preamble to the Declaration. It is true that we have never embodied the ideals penned by Thomas Jefferson; then again, neither did he, so perhaps to be American is to strive for who we hope to be even as we wrestle with who we functionally are.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a patriot. His patriotism spurred him to force us to see the ways that we fall short of our stated ideals. He was so loyal to America that he challenged America to invite all Americans to the dinner table. King, always hopeful, did not primarily rail against our Constitution as a racist document, or even as an artifact exposing our worst hypocrisy. Instead, Dr. King called our Constitution a “promissory note,” and argued that it looms in our collective memory, reminding us that we can start to embody its best principals if only we would commit ourselves to caring about the interest of others as an act of patriotism.

Last week my passenger side mirror was pushed out of alignment. For days, I forgot, and every time I checked for traffic, I glimpsed only a skewed view of the road behind me. My inability to understand my car’s orientation on the road forced me to drive with a handicap. As long as my mirror was jacked up, I couldn’t drive with confidence. As long as our citizens ignore the damage nationalist thinking caused in the past, we can’t make confident decisions about who gets our loyalty in the present. When we mistake nationalism for patriotism, we cannot understand our orientation as Americans who share this land with many, varied, wonderful others. We live handicapped, ignorant of the very history that shapes this moment, oblivious not just to the record behind us but also to our history of thinking and ways of claiming ideals. As we vote, I pray we would take the time to know the difference—past, present and future—between a patriotism that corrects our course and a nationalism that empowers evil.

a break to recover compassion

The news of the week lands hard on our weary hearts. As synagogues grieve and grocery shoppers are gunned down for existing, troops head to the border to confront weary folks walking north. I have so many thoughts about how we got here, where we are headed, and what our “I’m not the problem, you’re the problem” culture means for all of us.

Tonight though, life got in the way. The essay of the week will have to simmer until I find the 5th dimension of time needed to get it all done. Instead of writing, I was present for a hurting person. Knowing what I had to do, I somehow saw that the lament needed a witness for the possibility of ending in hope, rather than despair. Witnessing and bearing the burden of someone’s pain is never the wrong choice.

I will offer this in the space I leave: One of the many casualties found on the side of the road these days is our impulse for compassion. I am not speaking here of compassion-based progressive policies. Instead, I muster the strength to barely whisper: The impulse to move toward a grieving person is not an endorsement of their ideology. Stance taking is not required to acknowledge another person in need. It is not inherently “political” to recognize a person in pain.

We have been hoodwinked into believing we pick teams first, letting that determine who is worthy of empathy or human connection. Can I simply suggest that you fight to free your impulse toward charity? Go ahead and pick sides, get in the arena and advocate for policies you support. In the process though, grab the hand of hurting people as you walk through your day. Lean in and make eye contact, offering a smile to a person waiting in line. Recover your ability to see people, to let compassion or curiosity drive you closer to them, BEFORE you let politics tell you if they are worthy of your belief. Before you weigh the way your compassion will be interpreted by others.

Endorse connection, a human seeing another human, before you decide who you are allowed to hear or see. The lives I get to see up close are working really hard to get through the day. Kindness says little about the righteousness of the recipient, and a great deal about the value of the contributor. Be kind, present, compassionate, and let those connections prevent you from buying the lie that life is about picking sides (even when election day is one week away).

stubborn binaries, killing us softly

In honor of election day fast approaching, and the political frenzy it brings, this week’s essay is a repost from about a year ago, when I challenged the death grip binaries had our thinking and acting in the public sphere. Sadly, we still seem to love binaries, so much so that instead of loving our enemies we love to have enemies. As long as we continue to assume we all fit only on one side or the other, we are part of the problem. I hope this reminds us that there is a better way forward.

 People love to say our country is divided, and it certainly seems to me that it is. The more interesting observation for my money, however, is on the nature of that divide. I’m sick of the old ones—and they don’t seem to fit anymore anyway. Democrat/Republican, urban/rural, public/private, rich/poor, Christian/all-the-others, progressive/conservative, yuppie/hippie, dominant/minority, those who “get it”/those who don’t…they’re all examples of binary thinking that strike me as rather simple, and frankly, as evidence of unexamined thinking. 

 And yet, I have whole-heartedly rolled around in such binaries for the last politically-crazed year like my dog in freshly laid mulch: with a relish that is both nauseating and a little baffling. So why? Why do we refuse to bring our life experience, which is most definitely un-binary, to bear on the way we describe the tensions we feel with each other? Why do we pretend that all who kneel do not respect those who served our country, while all who stand do not care about those marginalized by injustice? The answers lie in understanding the foundational ways in which we relate to and contextualize each other. 

 Our tribal instincts are exacerbated by our immersion in segregated communities.  While most of us live, play and worship in racially and economically segregated spaces, almost all of us connect online in politically segregated arenas. Our ability to respectfully approach others with curiosity is severely hampered when we only hear attacks about “them.” The dependence many have on social media to connect with others and validate their own value tends to be—at best—equal parts sincere engagement and performative pandering. We know this, and feel it in our souls even as we compulsively check our feeds for extrinsic encouragement. There is a place in each of us that understands we are complicit in participating in this bullshit exchange-space, and this is the place from which our cries for authenticity arise, even as we exchange our own experience of ambiguity for binaries that exclude others and comfort us. 

 That for many, President Trump’s shoot from the hip style is refreshingly authentic is hilarious for some and devastating for others. Some of us know him as an honest and authentic outsider, unsullied by the “swamp.” Some of us abhor him as a fundamentally selfish and unethical hypocrite, amazed daily that others can’t see through the show. The former group, despairing in the inability to feel heard and respected by society, celebrate the President as embodying the authenticity they crave. The latter group think Trump’s election reflects a great mistake, a blip in our otherwise just and thoughtful democracy. Absurd as it is, the alienation they felt in the last eleven months overwhelms any notion of connection they shared with fellow citizens. Instead, they buy into binaries. I sometimes resonate, feeling the fabric of society had been torn, and that I no longer belong to, or even understand those who live on the other side of the lines we draw between us. 

 For some who allow binaries to define their views of community, they now gravitate toward a new view: that the President exactly reflects the reality of the sentiments held by voters. In short, Trump is America—or should I say, ‘Murica—and we deserve him. This may very well be true, and there is certainly daily evidence to support such a claim. We are hateful and mean, consumed with self, entitled victims.  We are, in fact, bad at taking care of each other. But we are also really good at it, and my contention is that binary thinking prevents us from recognizing both of these facts. Thus, viewing the era of Trump through such extremes is insufficient and, frankly, does not offer an analytical framework nuanced enough to understand this moment. Could it be that we are all selfish jerks and compassionate neighbors? Could it be that we are all presenting lovely masks of ourselves and taking strides toward authenticity? 

 This brings me, with great pleasure, to the person and persona of Josh Tillman, aka J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty. A folk singer/songwriter/rocker, Tillman presents the most interesting tableau of meta-authenticity I have come across in a spell. While creating and performing critically and popularly acclaimed music, Tillman is loathed by many who dismiss him as a self-obsessed crackpot philosopher who waxes poetic about the nature of performance in America today. Yes, maybe. But his awareness of self, his self-mockery, his ease with conflicting ideas even as he articulates them passionately, makes me a fan. He deconstructs society’s impulses even as he deconstructs his own drives, all while acting boldly on those drives!  It is hilariously refreshing to hear him think out loud. For Tillman, the notion of binary thinking is outright absurd, a shoe that does not fit any foot in the kingdom. 

 Reading about and listening to Tillman, where ambiguity and nuance organically infuse every thought, offers a clear juxtaposition with destructive and ill-fitting binaries. In processing through this last year, it is evident that we have, as an American culture, adopted what I call a binary cycle, in which our basic notion of self worth arises out of belonging to one side, and this becomes the rubric by which we judge others as well. Our thinking about others, and, importantly, about self, is dictated by binaries. Extremes certainly helped elect our President, but they have also reduced us to thinking almost exclusively in terms of us and them. Tillman is a reminder that these binaries, and the biases to which they give birth, are, in fact, the foundation of our fractured society. This is why American society has fallen with no means to get up.

 (But there I go again.) No we haven’t. Our society is not defined primarily by our binaries.  We demonize “them” all day long, but we are also a compassionate people who often care sacrificially for others. In Nashville, TN, in the midst of the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries and the halting of refugee resettlement, agencies who work with immigrant and refugee populations were flooded with volunteers and donations. Also in Nashville, gun violence has risen dramatically in parts of the city inhabited mostly by minorities. While many people with power seem oblivious to this crisis, some of us are starting to notice curiosity among those who heretofore have refused to link gentrification, education and development policies to the displacement, disruption and despair of many marginalized communities. I see evidence everyday that we all have a capacity to care about “them.” We the people are totally selfish and greedy, and generous and compassionate. We are not a binary, and when we think of ourselves and others through a binary lens we lose sight of ourselves and destroy the very fabric of society that still holds us together.

 So this is my call, in honor of  those who kneel and stand, and in thanks to our dear Father John, to invite more of us to join his conversation. Can we begin to recognize how binary thinking dehumanizes ourselves and others? Can we reject totalizing statements and replace them with curious listening? Can we create new habits of recognizing our commonalities before only seeing divides? Can we endorse candidates whose policies and rhetoric suggest we all belong together, as we vote for people to represent us, rather than down a party line? Paying honest attention is a good antidote for thinking in simple binaries.