Letter From Mexico

LOS MOCHIS, Mexico—Five weeks out of the country, and I'm already missing the American flag—although not so much as during the previous 47 years, two months and eight days that I lived in the United States.

Coming to Mexico for a sort of sabbatical immediately shoved me face-to-face with the contradictions—not to mention the double-entendre—of my unflagging patriotism. That is I've always loved the stars-and-stripes, but I've rarely waved them. Back home, I can't fly the flag. It isn't really mine anymore, not in the sense that displaying it would communicate my simple pride in a nation dedicated to the principles of liberty and justice for all—and my passion for living up to them.

Now the flag carries too much other baggage. What comes through to you when you see an American flag hanging on a front-yard pole, flapping from a car antenna, stickered to bumper or pinned to a lapel? Think the person who put it there is against war in Iraq; in favor of sweeping environmental protections; against weapons of mass destruction (including those in the U.S. arsenal); in favor of guaranteeing basic housing, health care and higher education; against executions, prayer in public schools and constitutional amendments that ban desecration of the American flag?

Me neither. Somehow, left-of-center perspectives have been disconnected from the conventional definition of patriotism. Often, they are considered unpatriotic—even anti-patriotic. Meantime, the conservative Right has wrapped itself in the flag, dyed its viewpoints and policies red, white and blue—and when political battles get intense, anyone who disagrees risks being splattered with the colors of suspicion and even treason. Dissent equals anti-Americanism.

That's sad. And stupid. Some of the United States' most prominent symbols of patriotism—the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, the Pledge of Allegiance, the lyrics to "America the Beautiful"—were created by people whose lives were devoted to political dissent. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty—"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"—was written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, a well-known poet who ran with socialists. She openly supported the single-tax program of Henry George, and leading British socialist William Morris was her close friend. Lazarus believed in the American Dream, but she wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty to emphasize that this country should be available to even the most oppressed of the world's people. Especially to them.

The Pledge of Allegiance was authored by Francis Bellamy of Boston in 1892, when he was more famous for delivering controversial sermons that portrayed Jesus Christ as a socialist. The Pledge was part of a magazine campaign to promote the use of U.S. flags in public schools in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America. But the Pledge was also a defiant document, asserting the country's core moral values—"one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all"—during an era when capitalism's individualism begat the greed of the robber barons and the exploitation of the working class.

The lyrics to "America the Beautiful" were composed by progressive poet Katharine Lee Bates, a lesbian who had a decades-long, live-in relationship with economist Katharine Coman. Both women were professors at Wellesley College, outside Boston, and both were active in reform movements involving workers' rights, the inner-city poor and women's right to vote. The book that presented the lyrics was called America the Beautiful and Other Poems, and those "other poems" included several that excoriated the United States for its imperialistic policies in the Philippines. In that context, the closing words of the poem take on the tone of strong moral resolution: "And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea."

And speaking of resolutions, my long search for an American flag finally led me to an old replica of the stars-and-stripes, now little more than a collage of faded paint and splintered wood, hanging from the storefront of an abandoned market here in Mexico. Tattered as it is, the thing rekindles my pride in coming from a country based on the principles of liberty and justice for all—stokes my passion that it live up to them. People around here may sometimes disagree, but they don't call my opinions un-American. Usually, I'm the only American in the conversation.

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