We are intelligent, educated, articulate Americans empathetic to one another’s stories, with a sense of history that extends beyond the Yankee Doodle Dandy drums and fife.
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned and forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
–Bob Dylan, “Chimes of Freedom”
As you might expect from someone teaching “The Sixties Colloquium,” my professor was pretty obsessed with Dylan. His protest songs permeated everything on our syllabus from Dr. Heath’s own acclaimed novel on Civil Rights activist Bob Moses to Sara Evans’ history of second-wave feminism to Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus tour. I did a report on that last one, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s wild New Journalism ride with writer Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. After volunteering in the CIA’s illicit Project MKUltra during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kesey used his special access to bring LSD to the growing California counterculture, throwing Acid Test parties attended by guests Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Jerry Garcia.
“In the sixties, it was the left who was crazy,” Dr. Heath laughed. “Now it’s the right.”
Dr. Heath’s words echo in my mind as the most recent GOP debate rolls into its third hour. Ben Carson, a doctor, denies climate change. Carly Fiorina unabashedly fabricates an image from a Planned Parenthood video. Reality TV star, schoolyard bully, and party frontrunner Donald Trump shifts the target of his antagonism from Carly Fiorina’s face to Rand Paul’s apparently abundant “subject matter.” Anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-immigrant proclamations reap the most applause. In the race for the highest office in the land, the great unifier of this spectacle’s base is the belief that progressive ideals are toxic to our nation, and the people who hold them are unpatriotic.
The concept of a “post-9/11 world” was always challenging for me to explain to my students born later and later into the 1990s. Though American politics had become increasingly polarized by the end of the 20th century, no one knew it from the amicable feel of my elementary school mock election: the toothy grins of kids waving blue stars for Clinton or red stars for Dole and a crop of parent volunteers—including my own Baby Boomer Republican dad and Gen X Democrat mom—just happy to support early voting habits. The optimism and prosperity of the ‘90s seemed to leave little room for questioning someone’s love of country.
Five years later, Bush II’s vow to “hunt down and punish those responsible” for 9/11 violently accelerated the political polarization we know today. It was a change I was quite conscious of from adolescence to young adulthood, having moved from my rural hometown at the West Virginia border to a liberal arts college not far from D.C., and then back to that small town to work at an evangelical Christian school. On my college campus, differences were celebrated and questions were encouraged. It was full of people who thought like me, a far cry from high school, and I learned that the values I held deeply—supporting women’s health care and comprehensive sex education, conservation policies to protect our environment, and equal rights for the LGBT community—were American values.
But after graduation I realized with a jolt that in my hometown, there was now only one way to be American. I took a job as the marketing director of a self-described “non-denominational” Christian school that drew students from the West Virginia panhandle to Amish Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The younger set were part of a mandatory group that performed a mix of Bible verses and patriotic songs at school assemblies. The older students, faculty, and staff were subjected to testing from the Nehemiah Institute—an organization specializing in “worldview assessment and training” in Christian education—which asked participants to rate their political and social views on a scale of Ted Nugent to Godless Pinko Commie. For fear of being blacklisted once the results came in, I suppressed my progressivism during office prayers to uphold “the rights of the unborn” and “the sanctity of traditional marriage.”
The climate outside of work wasn’t much different. By 2010, many of my friends were swept up in the growing Tea Party movement that evangelized a strict value system for “true American patriots.” The violently binary rhetoric of 9/11 (“If you won’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them”) gave birth to patriotism as a strange brew of unbridled greed and southern charm; subsequent campaign slogans included “Country First” and “Believe in America.” And presently, instead of swinging back to a more moderate center, a black candidate won’t broach racial inequality, a female candidate refuses to name a woman she’d like on the ten dollar bill, and only one candidate out of 16 embraces same-sex unions.
It’s easy to “other” progressive-minded citizens as contemptuous or anti-American because we’ve had plenty in recent years to be contemptuous about; namely, the treatment of Americans who continue to be “othered” in their own lives. A black kid shot in the street because an angry man feels threatened. A woman who can’t get the health services she needs after the release of a doctored video. A same-sex couple refused a marriage license because of one woman’s belief that religious conviction overrules secular law. The socially-conscious progressives of today can’t be chalked up to dazed hippies on a bus (sorry, Allen Ginsberg, you know I love you). We are intelligent, educated, articulate Americans empathetic to one another’s stories, with a sense of history that extends beyond the Yankee Doodle Dandy drums and fife.
I look forward to the day—and I believe it’s coming—when no single person or organization defines what it means to be a “true American patriot.” It is patriotic to admire the benevolent employment practices of Sweden and imagine what they could do for a country obsessed with working itself to death. It is patriotic to be thoughtful about gun ownership and support mental health services. It is patriotic to publicize the poor treatment of our veterans through song as Bruce Springsteen did in 1984, even if the message falls on a few deaf ears.
The only true anti-American sentiment is apathy.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.