When I arrived at the Fourth of July family barbecue, I noticed again that my father's car sports a bumper sticker with the American flag and the slogan "Proud to Be a Liberal." And although he didn't happen to be wearing it on the 4th, his lapel usually bears a small, eagle-shaped pin called a "ruptured duck," a mark of his service in the U.S. Army during World War II. Coming from a man who always mocked the "jelly-bellied flag-flappers" when I was growing up, these gestures seem heartfelt but slightly defensive -- as if he needs to prove he loves his country despite his left-leaning opinions.
Like everyone on our side of the spectrum, my father has learned to expect his patriotism to be questioned because of his politics. For decades the right has arrogated to itself a near-monopoly on patriotic expression, all too often with the dumb collusion of its adversaries on the left. But on the day that celebrates the nation's revolutionary founding, it occurred to me how utterly fraudulent and even ironic this right-wing tactic is. Only Americans' collective amnesia permits conservatives their exclusionary franchise on the flag, the Declaration of Independence and the whole panoply of patriotic symbols.
Without playing the right's chauvinistic game, one can argue that the left is equally entitled to a share in these honored symbols -- indeed, in the light of history, perhaps more entitled. Let's begin, in honor of the holiday just past, at the official beginning.
While "right" and "left" weren't the terms of political combat at that time on these shores, there isn't much doubt that behind the American Revolution, and in particular the Declaration of Independence, was a cabal of left-wing radicals. What other description would have fitted such figures as Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, who declared their contempt for monarchy and aristocracy? Their wealthier, more cautious colleagues in the Continental Congress regarded Adams as a reckless adventurer "of bankrupt fortune," and Paine as a rabble-rousing scribbler. Popular democracy was itself a wildly radical doctrine in the colonial era, tamed in the writing of the Constitution by the new nation's land-owning elites and slaveholders. The right-wingers of the Revolutionary era were Tories -- loyal to the British crown, fearful of change and, in their assistance to the occupying army of King George, the precise opposite of patriots. Only from the perspective of two centuries of ideological shift can the republican faith of the Founding Fathers be made to sound "conservative."
The Civil War, too, was a struggle between left and right, between patriots and ... well, in those days the Confederate leaders were called traitors (an epithet now avoided out of a decent concern for Southern sensibilities). Academics will argue forever about that war's underlying economic and social causes, but it was the left that sought to abolish slavery and preserve the Union while the right fought to preserve slavery and dissolve the Union. Today, reverence for the Confederacy remains the emotional province of right-wing Southern politicians and intellectuals (as well as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi skinheads). At the risk of offending the excitable die-hards who still wave the Stars and Bars, it may be asked what, exactly, is patriotic about that?
In this century, another inglorious episode in the annals of conservatism preceded the global war that consolidated American power. The so-called America First movement that opposed intervention against Nazism camouflaged itself with red, white and blue but proved to be a haven for foreign agents who were plotting against the United States. Communists and other radicals also initially opposed American entry into World War II for their own reasons, but the broad-based left of the New Deal coalition understood the threat posed by Hitler early on. After Pearl Harbor, most conservatives honorably joined the war effort, but more than a few on the right continued to promote defeatism and appeasement even then. And with all due respect to neoconservatives and other late-arriving right-wingers, the historical roots of postwar conservatism -- the "Old Right" of Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan -- can be traced to prewar sympathizers of the Axis.
The criminal excesses of the Cold War in Vietnam and elsewhere, so eagerly indulged by the right, alienated many Americans on the left from their country for a time. Conservatives seized the opportunity presented by flag-burning protests and other displays of disloyalty to marginalize their ideological opponents as un-American, though only a tiny minority dove off that deep end. But how many conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Dan Quayle beat the Vietnam draft while liberals like John Kerry and Al Gore served? And who truly served this country's best interests back then -- those who dispatched 50,000 young Americans to their deaths in the rice paddies, or those who dissented?
Yet despite these historical lessons, American right-wingers always manage to wrap themselves in Old Glory. It's easy enough, so long as nobody looks back.