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American patriotism

Yesterday I had to explain to my startled children why their dad just about jumped out of his seat with joy when Pete Seeger showed up on stage. To those not of a particular generation and of a particular swipe through that generation, it is indeed a mystery…

I was born in 1950 to parents who agreed more about politics than anything else. My father was a WWII vet and a graduate of Harvard Law who, rather than going into private practice, went to work as a lawyer for the New York State Labor Relations Board. He believed working people needed the power of unions to fight exploitation. And he was right.

My mother was a folksinger — she taught guitar but did not have enough confidence, or I imagine, my father’s support, to perform — starting in the early 1950s, before the the pop acculturation of that form. Folk music back then was a mix of art, anthropology and politics. During an era of smooth, mass market, commercial singers — think of a Perry Como Christmas Hour — the folklorists were out in the fields, preserving the raw, bottom-up songs of the least among us. Folk music stood in the fields against the great lawn mower of commercial entertainment.

A labor lawyer and a folksinger. My parents were the very definition of what others called “commie symps” (communist sympathizers). Pink, not red. They had no love for Russia, but they also saw America’s sins for what they were: Racist, misogynist (my mother but not my father was something like an early feminist), crass, bullying, and sexually obsessed with atomic bombs. They believed in America’s stated principles and promise, and had the ACLU membership cards to prove it. But they had also lived through a time when lynchings went unpunished, and Joseph McCarthy had twisted the legislature around his accusatory finger.

Pete Seeger was of my parents’ generation. In our household, he was the example of what a patriot looks like. A man of the people. Someone who had suffered for his political views in the McCarthy years. A hero who had stayed true to his ideals. A person who felt connected to the worst off, who appreciated their culture and who worked for their aspirations. A quiet person who never boasted. A character who never bowed to fashion or the expectations of others. A singer happiest in a small circle of like souls. Someone whose life and songs celebrated the greatest of America’s democratic ideals: The ineffable value of the ordinary person.

So, when Pete Seeger came out on stage in his rainbow Smurf hat, to sing before our new president, our new black president, I lost it. What my parents would have thought. What Pete Seeger must be thinking. But most of all, the proof of how steeply history can arc.

Pete Seeger: American patriot.

[Note: This post is also up at Huffington. Feel free to comment there.]

words and music by Woody Guthrie

[Note the second-to-last verse, the one that begins “As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there.” It’s a lot of people’s favorite — dw]

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I’ve roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding

This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no tress passin’
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.

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24 Responses to “American patriotism”

  1. Not only you but me.

    Although brought up in the conservative rural religious South, I have finally in the last couple of decades found that my moral, social and political values match yours (and your parents) almost precisely. Although vaguely conscious of Pete Seeger’s music, especially the song you quote, I had no idea of the scope and depth and heroism of his life story until I ordered this DVD ( from Netflix. It is an excellent documentary on his life, and my husband and I were brought to tears just sitting on our sofa watching. Somehow, I had the idea that he was already dead, so was also very surprised to see him on stage yesterday.

    What a miracle — how can we not be truly hopeful for change?

  2. Some of us manage to love the country without regard to who the President is, or which party runs Congress. Then there’s…. people like you.

    Patrick Henry had a description for you: “Sunshine Patriots”. Obama is my President, even though I didn’t vote for him, and I doubt very much that I’ll agree with many of his actions. But he is my President, regardless. Sadly, people on the left don’t look at things that way.

  3. check the version of this song by Lila Downs
    it s just out of the planet

  4. James, wanting our country to be better, fairer and more humane to ALL its citizens as well as the rest of the world is an excellent way of loving our country. If we liberals like Pete Seeger and Joho didn’t have a deep love for our country, how could we feel so ashamed when our government shows cruelty toward our most vulnerable citizens? Your assumption that we are somehow traitors to our country because we see its faults is simply false logic.

    Having a president who understands that and expresses it in his public statements and even more in his policies is a wonderful change, no matter how much you deny it. The bitterness of your comments makes me feel sad — for you.

  5. delighted to know of howard in this light

    inspired of course by the irony

    i am paraphrasing because i can’t copy and paste from the flash window but something like

    “hbo has declared you can’t watch this video”


  6. lurkerfan – what bothers me is the left attitude that conservatives aren’t just wrong, their evil. I don’t think the people I disagree with are evil; I think they have a different philosophical outlook, and I usually think they don’t understand the way the world works. But: I don’t think they’re evil, and I don’t think they wake up every day hellbent on destroying the country.

    The left simply does not extend the same courtesy. At all.

  7. Well, then, James, since I can’t do anything about “The Left”, let’s start with you and me. Let’s you and me pledge not to treat one another with disrespect, not to personalize issues, and try to find the good in one another and in one another’s beliefs.


  8. David,

    You could start by not making assumptions about the motivations of the previous administration, and simply accepting that they made choices. Choices you disagreed with, sure. Choices you would never have made, sure. Choices who’s intentions were to destroy the country? Not so much.

    I don’t think Obama intends to destroy anything. While I have grave doubts about the efficacy of his desired policies, I don’t think he is operating with malice aforethought.

    A nice start would be for you to ponder the same thing wrt to those with whom you disagree.

  9. Fair enough.

    I don’t think Bush operated with malice. He was doing what he thought was best for the country. I think he was woefully wrong in his assessment and incompetent to boot. I never thought his motivation was to “destroy the country” or anything like that. That wouldn’t make sense.

    As for “making assumptions about the motivations of the previous administration,” I’m not going to stop doing that. I’m still trying to figure out how some of what Bush did makes sense even within a conservative framework.

    I also don’t think conservatives and Republicans are all like Bush in their motives, their cognitive framework, or their psychology.

  10. you are both so cute

    James, don t you think though that when the lives of people
    of a all lot of people are erased
    someone should take responsability for it ?

  11. gianluca – there weren’t any “disappeared” people in the US. If you are referring to Iraq or Afghanistan, then the Congress affirmed both actions, with the votes of both parties. That makes both actions legal from a US law perspective, which means that any responsibility taking is political in nature. Since the Democrats took both the legislature and the executive branches, starting in 2006, I’d say that all demands for political accountability have been met.

  12. james
    you have the role of commander in chief,
    that means he is the decider right ?
    so he decided when and how to conduct the war
    he is the one that authorized the massive bombing of iraqi infrastructure,
    remember that contract to rebuild iraq were signer 3 month before invasion

    we can’t simply describe this all nightmare and say
    it was the system who did it

    someone has to be hold responsable
    that is the base for democracy

  13. gianluca – Congress authorized and funded the war, which means that all responsibility is joint. Once wars begin, people die. That’s the way wars work. If you want to hold people responsible for any war, then you have to deal both with the ones who gave the orders, and the ones who provided the funding that made the orders possible. You don’t get to pick who to hold responsible based on partisan politics.

  14. oh, and gianluca – Obama has already committed to sending extra troops to Afghanistan – there’s going to be more intense fighting there, and possibly across the border into Pakistan. Let me know when your rose colored glasses come off and you decide that Obama is a war criminal, will you?

  15. James, we are may be decades away from a war free planet
    it will eventually happen as bigger international communities are being built up around the word
    see the EU, the Union of South American Nations
    the Association of South East Asian Nation, the African Union

    all these are organizations created less then a century ago. some are s young as 3 years old
    all of them are communities o countries that has been in war between each other for centuries

    the war we see today are mostly tribal wars or aggressive stance from dictatorial countries on the likes of russia

    the afghanistan war has been called to remove an extremely dangerous situation, a heaven for radical islamist, rejected even by the most radical arabic countries

    the war in iraq has been the first deliberate invasion from a democratic country toward a country that posed no threat whatsoever, a country that was under embargo for more then 10 years, whose military was under maintained and lacking the minimum update for the all period of the embargo

    false information has been provided to the public to support that war,
    meaningless distructions has been waged against that country to justify billions in reconstructing contracts
    (we even had to witness bridges destroyed, reconstructed and re-destroyed )
    leaving a population of millions without the minimum standard of a civil life
    then we had the lack of oversight in abu graib
    the cia operations in foreign countries, including europe
    to kidnap and make people disappear in shallow jails in lawless countries
    we had guantanamo and a formal declaration of ‘enemy combatant’ as a figure outside any international agreement

    all this is not only a series of crime against democracy
    it has been a huge set back for the idea of international law itself

    all this didn’t came from the congress voting war privileges to the president
    all this comes from individual and specific decision from the white house

    it has nothing to do with partisanship or politics
    it has to do with the law and with individual responsibility

    many of this actions has never been done or authorized by any former president, regardless his party

    that is way people are so upset I guess

  16. gianluca – Without Congressional funding, there’s no war (or anything else). Period, end of story. Presidents can start wars; only Congress can enable them to continue. You can dislike that all you want, but there it is.

    Secondly, the whole “lies” thing is just too silly for words. You can look at statements from people across the spectrum, from Clinton (both of them), Jay Rockefeller, Feinstein, even Kerry – before the invasion, there was broad support for it, and all of the key people in Congress saw the same intelligence information that the President did. If you want to carry on your pleasant delusion that Bush was singularly guilty of something, I suppose that’s fine – it just doesn’t line up with things in the real world.

    Finally, on war – the world won’t be free of war anytime soon. In fact, I’d go so far as to state that we are in an unusual pause from major wars right now, and this has been an altogether good thing. However, I don’t expect it to last. At the very least, I expect Pakistani terrorists to eventually push India one step too far, and the entire sub-continent will just explode.

    Bear in mind that most of the intelligentsia believed that war was impossible in Europe in June of 1914 – they economies were too tightly integrates, and it just couldn’t happen… and yet it did. Until human nature changes, war will be a part of human existence.

    Ultimately, I think that illustrates one of the key differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals have fantasy beliefs about changing human nature; conservatives are properly cynical about the whole thing.

    And no, this isn’t some welcoming of war on my part. I merely recognize that it happens due to human nature. Recognition does not imply enjoyment.

  17. Yes James
    that is the main difference

    I believe that if you accept a situation as part of an unchangeable nature
    you ll never progress an inch forward

    I belive we need a vision to go forward
    without that
    we merely conserve

    and for me it s just too boring to be true

  18. gianluca: Human nature hasn’t changed in literally millions of years – political ideology is not about to do something that evolution has not. I accept the unchanging nature of people in order to be able to accomplish anything – if I entertained the fantasy notion that it could change, I’d end up running in mental circles, achieving nothing, and being constantly astonished by reality.

    You can either live in the world and try to improve life incrementally, or you can delude yourself and be constantly disappointed. Feel free to keep doing the latter; I’ll stay in the real world.

  19. James
    switch on you tv set
    and see it by yourself

    enjoy the great vision of a country you live in
    enjoy each little step we are doin from the caves to this

    I m sucked in now…

  20. I’ve watched many, many power transitions – this isn’t new. In fact, the level of expectation on Obama is dangerous for him – he can’t possibly live up to the hype. Even if he has success, it could look like failure compared to what people – like you and David – seem to expect

  21. […] My favorite part was Pete Seeger.  Woody Guthrie would be smiling if he were there.  David Weinberger agrees. […]

  22. In answer to James’s comment, “lurkerfan – what bothers me is the left attitude that conservatives aren’t just wrong, their evil.”

    And what bothers me is being lumped into a group and having you attribute opinions to that group that do not belong to me. Most of my family and many friends are ardent conservatives, and I do not consider them evil, just poorly informed and misled by the simplistic propaganda of many conservative politicians and pundits. I especially regret that much is done in the name of religion.

    And I heartily agree with you that Congress has abdicated its war-making prerogative to the executive branch by rubber-stamping its actions. We may have a good leader now in the White House, but the Congress is still not taking its oversight role nearly as proactively as needed.

  23. It is now July and our Constitution has been, and continues to be, trampled by our “savior”. I would like to know if you are happy with your “CHANGE”.

  24. cool pics

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