What our parents name us is a reflection of the time into which we are born. What we call ourselves is how we hope to be seen.
We’ve learned recently that the IRS has been accused of targeting certain groups based on the name of the organization. Initially, it appeared that the Internal Revenue Service was aiming merely at conservative groups with terms like “patriot” and “Tea Party.” Since then, it’s turned out that the IRS has also scrutinized “progressive” groups with its fish eye.
What our friends in Washington were trying to do – in a typically ham-handed way – was to make sure that politically partisan groups don’t get tax exemptions. I’m fine with that, although the fight against tax-evaders should have a much broader net than the one they appear to be using.
With the Fourth of July nearing, though, it raised in my mind some questions. What does it mean to be a patriot? What does it mean to be progressive?
During the American Revolution, Patriots (notice cap-P) were those who supported independence from England. To the Brits they were rebels or traitors. Americans who opposed independence were called either Loyalists or Tories (the latter referring to the more conservative of the English political factions).
But the original Patriots were not all of one mind. Alexander Hamilton, for example, wanted to replace the strong central British government with a strong central American government. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, desired to see (at least initially) less government and more independence for the individual.
Many of the Founding Fathers were of the propertied class; their opposition to British policies was based as much on anger at London’s damage to their economic interests as it was on liberty for the colonies.
But in the rank and file of the Continental Army, militia and other supporters of the Revolution were much more diverse. State constitutions written after the war was won revealed a remarkably non-conservative bent. Many states dropped restrictions on the voting franchise, eliminating religious or property requirements. Two states even gave women the right to vote (later, alas, rescinded).
Some of the original Patriots were slave-owners; many of the Patriots were staunchly anti-slavery.
So, clearly, to be a patriot does not mean to adhere to one’s own political ideology alone.
A good definition of patriot comes from my American Heritage Dictionary, which refers to “one who loves, supports and defends one’s country.”
For some in the “patriot” movement as it’s developed in that last several years, being a patriot means being antagonistic to the same government elected by the public. It is overwhelmingly white, conservative and skeptical of key concerns of gays and women.
Some of the rhetoric seems to suggest that these “patriots” might claim to love their country despite being pretty angry towards half or more of the people who live in it.
Over on the left, the “progressives” sometimes want to progress toward ever-more invasive aspects of government. A “nanny state” is right around the corner, it seems, where government can tell you how much soda you can buy, and in which social workers can seize your children on an accusation which may prove to be spurious.
Being a middle-of-the-road fellow, I see the political division that is so much a part of the current landscape. Some “patriots” literally see folks with differing opinions as the enemy, and some “progressives” return the favor. What is patriotic about hating other Americans? What is progressive about holding other Americans in contempt?
Back in 1776, folks of different classes and motivations came together to create something brand new in the world: a place for people to breathe free. That freedom was won by guys who had (and knew how to use) guns; it was made more perfect and complete by people who pushed forward for freedom for blacks and women.
Each dimension of American society contributed greatly. Patriotism without progress stagnates; progress without a love of country becomes a Darwinian struggle by special interest groups.
On the back side of all our coins is the motto “E pluribus unum.” That’s Latin for “one out of many.” If you can happily embrace the idea of a nation filled with all kinds of people, from hippies to rednecks, gun nuts to tree-huggers and everything in between, you’re living the patriotic life, I think. And if you want things to get better for all those people, you’re progressive.
Happy Independence Day.