As we head into this July 4th weekend, I’m thinking about the fact that a lot of liberals struggle with the whole idea of patriotism. That’s because the word has often been associated with the air-brushed view of this country that omits the struggles and focuses mostly on symbolism. President Obama’s speech at the 50th anniversary of the Selma march gave us a more honest look at what patriotism really means.
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people –- unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
In honoring a true patriot, that is exactly how Bruce Springsteen described Pete Seeger at his 90th birthday celebration. Bruce used the occasion to recount the time he and Pete sang together at Obama’s first inauguration – when he took the opportunity to tell an overjoyed Seeger, “You outlasted the bastards, man.”
Bruce’s description of Pete tells us what a true patriotic hero looks like:
Despite Pete’s somewhat benign grandfatherly appearance, he’s a creature of stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger to the heart of our country’s illusions about itself…He reminds us of our immense failures as well as shinning a light towards our better angels on the horizon where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.
So as you enjoy your holiday weekend, take a few minutes to enjoy this patriotic song (all 4 verses).