[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is César Chávez.
I don’t have any illusions about how many Americans would disagree with me that a labor activist and leader, and one who did most of his work on behalf of migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, and other impoverished American communities, could be a unifying and inspiring figure. Our increasingly divided and partisan versions of American history (and everything else) have, I would argue, meant one of a couple things for how we remember inspiring recent patriots: either we create warm and fuzzy images of them that elide much of both their complexity and their greatness, as we have with Martin Luther King, Jr.; or many of us come to see them as a negative and destructive force, as I believe is the case with Chávez.
But one of the central jobs of public American Studies scholarship, as I see it, is precisely to find the way to do a couple difficult and even potentially contradictory things at the same time: to help us collectively connect more fully and with more complexity to our national histories and stories, perhaps especially the dark and divisive ones; and alongside and (at least ideally) through them to imagine and argue for unifying American communities and identities to which we can all connect as we move forward. And I think our most impressive and inspiring Americans offer a great opportunity to do both of those things at the same time: with King, for example, if we can remember both his impassioned stands against poverty, war, and other injustices and yet at the same time recognize his transcendent arguments for a universal, color-blind, whole national future and community, we have a model for both sides of this two-part process.
I’d say exactly the same for Chávez. It’s certainly fair to say that he wasn’t scared of a fight, of taking a stand, of being divisive or unpopular in service of his goals, even of appearing to be anti-American (at least if “American” means the government and its various extensions) as a result; there’s a reason why he, like King, was the target of FBI investigations for decades. But I would argue that such activism, far from seeking to undermine American identity or ideals, embraced and extended them; that, just like Quock Walker, Chávez worked to embody the Declaration of Independence’s arguments for equality, to live them in his own efforts and to help millions of other Americans connect to them as well. And as the ongoing work of his Foundation makes clear, those efforts, while focused on particular American communities, can and should be extended to every American, as an ideal embodiment of Bruce Springsteen’s belief that, “In the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Pretty patriotic concept, I’d say.
Your nominees this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Nominees you’d add for that weekend post?
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