America is Too Big to Love or to Hate

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2021

What does it mean to love one’s country? This question is too big to permit a simple answer. In a free country we will disagree about patriotism.

A Black athlete, Gwen Berry, refused to salute the flag during the national anthem at the U.S. Olympic Trials last week. Some viewed her as a hero. Others did not. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked in a tweet, “why does the left hate America?”

Of course, America includes a long list of protesting Black athletes, from from Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James. Maybe those who hate these protests are the ones who hate America.

The truth is, we disagree about everything, including who counts as a patriotic, real American. We always have.

The generation of 1776 had to decide whether to pledge their lives, fortunes, and honor to a new nation conceived in liberty. A war broke out. This happened again in the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln invoked the “mystic chords” of national identity. Southern states disagreed. The patriotic vision excluded people like Frederick Douglass, who said (in 1847), “The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man … In such a country as this, I cannot have patriotism.”

Douglass is now recognized as an American icon. But we continue to disagree.

Congress recently honored the police who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. The congressional commendation celebrated the patriotism of those cops. But some Republicans balked, unhappy with the word “insurrection.”

President Biden has said, “the insurrection was an existential crisis.” But Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) said it was a lie to call it an insurrection. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) said that the Justice Department’s response to Jan. 6 harassed “peaceful patriots.” Each voted against honoring the Capitol police.

We disagree about recent history — and about the deeper past. We disagree about who we are, what our country represents, what unites us — and what divides us.

America is a big, messy place. It includes Gwen Berry. It also includes Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by a cop on Jan. 6 as she tried to enter the House chamber, and George Floyd, who was killed by a cop in Minnesota. It also includes those cops. This is a country of Proud Boys and Antifa. It is a country of Trump-lovers and Ted Cruz voters, Biden-supporters and fans of Kamala Harris.

Which America are we supposed to love? Should we love the American history of colonialism, slavery, and war? Should we love those who claim the 2020 election was stolen? Should we love a country that elected a woman of color as vice president?

There is too much here to love. America is a 300-year-long, continent-spanning process. Something this big cannot simply be loved. Nor can such a thing simply be hated.

This country contains a multitude, as Walt Whitman might say. It includes farmers and fishermen, poets and priests. This is a land of scientific achievement and quack medicine. It is a land of many faiths, including atheism. It is a country of diverse people united by the fact that we are free to be different.

Human beings are more complicated than simple patriotism permits. When freedom is unleashed, we grow and expand and become unruly. As long as we generally leave each other alone, this can work. But it is too much to ask us to come together and sing “Kumbaya.”

Indeed, when one group joins hands and starts singing, another faction will be standing on the sidelines mocking the song. This is the tragic truth of human freedom. It unites us and divides us. It brings us together and drives us apart.

So let’s not be surprised at our divisions. We have always been divided. Division is a sign of the health of a democracy. Conformity indicates the presence of oppression and the death of the human spirit. Liberty vitalizes and invigorates. It invites us to be different and to disagree.

Democracy is messy, ugly, and often unpleasant. Tyrannies are cleaner, perhaps, creating conformity through coercion. But democracies unleash freedom. And liberty promotes diversity. We are not ants or bees. Nor are we cogs in a social machine. We are human beings: unruly, disruptive, creative, and free.

Democracy is like Santa Claus. It only exists if we believe it does.

Fresno Bee, December 13, 2020

Democracy is like Santa Claus. It only exists if we believe it does. Many Americans would like to say, “Yes Virginia, there was a legitimate election.” But the Scrooges are saying, “Bah, humbug.”

A number of Americans believe that the election was stolen. One poll reports that half of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the election. Another poll found that 62% of Republicans say it’s “very likely” that the election was stolen by Democrats.

This means that when Joe Biden is inaugurated, many will view him as a shopping mall Santa, sitting on a throne of lies.

We are at a dangerous crossroads. If what the president says is true, the Democrats have stolen our republic. If what the president says if false, then he is the Grinch hijacking our democracy.

It is difficult to tell how serious this is. It is one thing to say you don’t believe in Santa. It is another thing to stop celebrating Christmas.

We’ll see how this cookie crumbles after the Electoral College votes and someone is inaugurated. Will the nonbelievers choose to act on their disbelief? If so, let’s hope that their actions are nonviolent. To protest non-violently is the nonbelievers right, grounded in the First Amendment. But violence is extra-constitutional and revolutionary.

Nonbelievers might stop paying taxes, for example. Of course, tax resisters will be prosecuted. But that is the point. Nonviolent protesters go to jail to protest a corrupt system.

I am not advocating this. I happen to believe the state election officials, the courts, and other experts who concluded that the election was legitimate. But this whole system is based upon faith.

Like Christmas, democracy is a ritual and a pageant. At some point we make a leap of faith and choose to play along. People have a right to stop playing along. But there are consequences.

One famous defense of playing along begins by saying, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Francis P. Church said that Virginia and her 8-year-old friends had been “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” He defended the importance of “childlike faith” in magic, poetry, fantasy and romance.

Government also involves fantasy and faith. A flag is a piece of cloth. A law is merely words on a page. These things come alive when we believe in them.

Francis Church wrote that the best things are those we cannot see. He spoke of Santa Claus as a metaphor for the hidden wonders of the world — for love and beauty, meaning and transcendence.

He could as well have been talking about democracy. Like Christmas, democracy exists in the minds of men and women. It only exists when we play along. When people stop playing along, the fantasy ends. If enough people stop playing along, the whole thing collapses.

Perhaps skepticism is warranted in this skeptical age. We know that there really is no Santa Claus. And as the partisans squabble, it is increasingly difficult to believe in the idea of America. Maybe it is time to wake up from the dream of e pluribus unum.

But it’s worth asking what we would wake up to, if we stopped playing along. If we give up on the dream of democracy, what would replace it? If we stop believing in America, then what?

Christmas is a good time to think about what we believe.

Do we believe in country more than party?

Do we have faith in democracy or not?

Christmas is also a time of transformation.

After the Grinch stole Christmas, he was surprised. The Grinch thought that if he stole the tree and the presents, the Whos of Whoville would have nothing to celebrate. But they came together and sang anyway. And the Grinch’s heart grew.

The Grinch learned that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. He learned that Christmas “means a little bit more.”

When we wake up from this nightmare winter, will we learn something similar?

The future looks bleak. But this is also a season of hope.

So let’s hope that if there are protests, they remain nonviolent.

Let’s hope that we can sing in harmony again.

And let’s hope that the Scrooges and Grinches will decide to play along.