Country First–but first…

I see that Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain’s slogan is, as of late August 2008, “Country First.” This is clearly a slight reworking of the old “My country right or wrong.” And that’s a problem.

“My country right or wrong” is a sentiment going back millennia, but it was first recorded for posterity as coming from the mouth of Stephen Decatur, a U.S. naval commander who went to the North African port of Algiers, headquarters of the Barbary States (extending from Tangiers to Tripoli), during the Second Barbary War in 1815. Decatur was to negotiate with the Barbary States for the release of some American sailors who had been captured by pirates and held in slavery, and also for the end of the practice of paying tribute to the Barbary States (European and American states paid the Barbary States annual tributes of gold, arms, and other supplies in return for protection from Barbary pirates).

Decatur’s way of negotiating was to capture two Barbary ships, including their flagship Mashouda, and then blow into Algiers with guns leveled at the city and demand the American prisoners and an end to tribute. It was perhaps the first example of the U.S. using “gunboat diplomacy”. Decatur got everything he wanted. (This is why the Marine Hymn begins with the lines “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli; we will fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea”.)

When Decatur returned to the U.S., as a great hero, he was given a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia, during which he gave a speech that included these words: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

This was morphed into “My country right or wrong” so quickly that by 1872, Wisconsin Senator Carl Shurz could refer to the phrase in a Senate speech and know that his audience would understand what it meant. Decatur’s qualifying “may she always be in the right” had been rapidly dropped, leaving “my country right or wrong” as the philosophy of the zealous American patriot. Shurz knew “my country right or wrong” was pulled out to at once kill any questions about American political policies (particularly overseas) and assert the justice of those policies.

But Shurz chose to reiterate the qualifier. His words are far more stirring to the real patriot than Decatur’s:

“‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Shurz elaborated this further in an 1899 speech:

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

The true American patriot knows that what she is proud of is the principles this nation was founded on, and on our willingness and commitment to live up to them. America will go astray, because living up to those principles is hard. But true patriots will use all their energy when America goes astray to get it back on course. The first step, of course, is to admit America has gone wrong, and veered off course.

And that’s exactly what cannot happen if one’s slogan is “Country First.” Because this slogan assumes that anything America does is right, and anyone who questions that is putting something else–fear, weakness, ignorance–ahead of America and its interests. Country can only come first in the sense that we work tirelessly to put our founding principles of equality and justice first. “Principles First” would be a more heartening slogan for the American patriot.

“Country First” assumes somehow that Americans are separate from the country of America, and that we must put our needs and values aside to promote our country. And then maybe the country will check in with us later. That’s not how a democracy works. We are America, and so must put ourselves first, and always vote for the policies that promote the justice and equality we are founded on.

So let’s vote with the slogan “Principles First” as we go to the polls in November, and let’s remember that the most patriotic thing is to set one’s country right when it stumbles, not to enshrine the stumbling as a principle.

We all have a dream

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.

But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.

So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.

But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.

Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.

Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.

Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?