Around the time when I participated as a group dancer of my high school in the spectacle of 1984 People’s Republic of China National Day parade，several sources of inspiration and ideas made me being skeptical of patriotism and nationalism, especially the state-sanctioned version.
Gandhi’s and MLK’s non-violence has been a defining and central idea in my life-long public participation of justice movement, starting from those teenage years. But when I learnt about Henry Thoreau’s civil disobedience against an unjust state, the central idea of non-violence is separated from Gandhi’s Indian nationalism. Albert Einstein’s disgust of uniformed men marching in unison was another image sneaked in my mind as I was fascinated about theoretical physics and its genius. Then was the long years of studying modern Chinese history while at BU and Harvard, and developing a respect for Li Hongzhang for his pragmatism and the realization of the follies of senseless nationalistic acts of his other contemporaries. The sources are many and everywhere. Like all foundational perspective, like all epiphanies, the moment of realization changes one’s perspective on many if not all things in front of you that’s always been there. Skepticism, if not distrust, toward government, and government sanctioned patriotism is actually what differentiate modern citizenry from a mob. The former produce and sustain democratic and just societies; the latter give birth to dictatorship often with demagogue and police state.
Lady Gaga performed both God Bless America and its critique This Land is Your Land (originally named God Bless America for me) at SuperBowl Halftime 2017. Lady Gaga, you are my princess now.
It is timely as folksy tune sung at protests across the country since November 2016 Election in the US. I went back to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s original and protest song versions, and I re-discovered the moment at Obama’s inauguration. It was a moving, deeply thoughtful, and proud moment for me as a social justice practitioner, exile immigrant, a father of 3 natural born New Yorkers, when watching and listening to The Boss and Pete during Obama inauguration 2008. (As an aside, it still put a smile on my face as camera keep catching two African American and one Asian backup singers right behind Bruce Springsteen, and the happy and excited faces among the spectators singing along the protest song lyrics Pete Seeger was reading out loud.) Few things top Presidential Inauguration as state-sanctioned patriotism, that’s why I rarely watch it, and never remind my children to take a look. But knowing Pete Seeger was performing this song at the Inauguration was different (it was in front of the Lincoln Memorial to a free pre-inaugural concert that the Obama and Biden families attended). I was wondering if the original and/or protest song version would have been sung. (Even more curious and subtle would be whether the often omitted lyrics – quoted below – and the original intent of criticizing God Bless America would be lost on the audience and on the occasion). Pete did all rarely performed lyrics! This was beginning of 2009, still 3 years before Occupy Wall Street when fairness again, at least for a brief moment in US history, becomes a mainstream concept.
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This side was made for you and me.”
“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office I saw my people. As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if God Blessed America for me.”
“When the sun comes shining, then I was strolling, With the wheat fields waving, the dust clouds rolling, The voice come a-chanting, and the fog was lifting. This land was made for you and me.”
Let hermits hide, let haters hate. We participate, We do our very best to make a difference, for the better, for things larger than ourselves, and for the public good.