The most recent media assaults on Barack Obama's "patriotism" have left me amazed and infuriated, but I hope that the Obama team continues to display the same extraordinary skill in re-framing the conversation that they've shown so far.
How many people in this country, even those on our side of the discussion, have made the leap to redefine "patriotism," or, better phrased, to return the word to its true meaning?
With that in mind, I have a few thoughts on the deeper implications of patriotism, triggered by a musical encounter with a master musician from India over two decades ago.
Years ago, I worked with a great Indian classical musician, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who plays the stringed instrument called the sarod. I was taking him around Boston to do advance media relations for his upcoming concert, and we went in to do an interview with Boston's great classical DJ, the late Robert J. Lurtsema. Midway through the one-hour interview/performance, Khansaheb announced that he would play "an American patriotic song."
He then performed a sarod/tabla version of "We Shall Overcome," leaving Lurtsema speechless.
I've thought about that performance often since then, and I continue to be struck by Khansaheb's unforced assumption that because it was associated with the Civil Rights Movement, "We Shall Overcome" was inherently a "patriotic" song; he consulted no American historians before using those terms. Here's why:
In India, "patriotic songs" are those associated with the Freedom movement, and it made perfect sense to Khansaheb that a song like "We Shall Overcome" was patriotic. The Freedom Fighters of the Indian Independence struggle had songs and music to demonstrate and express their love of their country, even as they struggled against a dominant colonial power. Songs like "Vande Mataram" were banned by the British during the first years of the twentieth century. Now, alas, some of these pieces have been appropriated by the Hindu nationalist analogues of the wingnut neocons, their original implications and meanings forgotten or distorted.
But the real point here is one that has to do with America, today. Our patriotism is a function of our struggle to guide our beloved country in the direction of greater responsibility, greater honesty, greater clarity. The important notion is that our patriotism cannot simply mean that we think America occupies a single perfect point on a hypothetical continuum of national virtues. Patriotism is a vector, a direction of motion. Patriotism must reflect a continued willingness to strive for improvement -- the more we strive to help America become what it could be, the more invested we are in the changes we seek, and the more patriotic we become.
We do not struggle to improve our country because we are "patriotic." We become patriotic when we struggle to improve our country. India's Freedom Fighters were patriots before they had a country; their struggle to end colonial occupation created the country.
Martin's Dream is a patriotic vision. "We Shall Overcome" is a patriotic song. Any struggle against injustice, inequity, or exploitation is a patriotic struggle. Pete Seeger is a patriot, and so was Susan B. Anthony. So was Clarence Darrow, and so was Rosa Parks. (Daily Kos is a Patriotic Website, natch - and you're a patriot and so am I.)
To the extent our actions focus on personal profit, self-aggrandizement or the fulfillment of vendettas, we cease to be patriots, instead turning into profiteers, egomaniacs or hate-curdled criminals.
None of us is a perfect patriot, although some have come pretty close. But I believe that a false "perfection" is the antithesis of patriotism, for it suggests that we need no longer strive to make things better.
Which is another way of saying that I think Barack Obama's pretty damned patriotic, thank you very much.
And because I'm a musician, here are some pieces of patriotic music for you to enjoy:
Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra, playing the Anthem of the African National Congress:
Mahalia Jackson, singing "We Shall Overcome":
Lata Mangeshkar, singing "Vande Mataram":
Kim West, singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing":