A Patriot’s Fourth of July
No, I’ll not be exploding firecrackers on July 4th (nor on New Year’s Eve either, when private rockets fill Berlin skies). Here, too, I am safely distant from possible crazy AK15 attacks, though very aware of many people’s fears on this date. Yet, despite all doubts, despite fearful weaponry, at home or abroad, I consider myself an American patriot! Many might see me as one of the least likely to even want that description. A left-wing radical as a young man, I deserted the US Army (one jump ahead of the McCarran-McCarthy bloodhounds) and have spent much of my life in East Berlin, often writing polemics against USA policies. Can I still call myself patriotic? In fact, is that a good thing to be?
Like some lizard species my eyes can see things from two angles at the same time. Even countries; my adopted home, Germany, but also my home country, the USA. Somehow I cannot overcome this habit of double vision.
For example, I have no love for the America of tobacco companies, which hired hordes of lobbyists to bribe members of Congress and enable them to spread smoking to more women, people of color, youngsters and all the world, despite knowing that it is extremely unhealthy. The State Department even supported them abroad, where handsome Marlboro cowboys even had a political effect.
Nor do I love the America of Coca Cola, Pepsi-Cola, of McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, which have knowingly poisoned millions, especially youngsters, in the USA and around the world. And how can I feel pride in fellow New Yorkers like the Sackler family, who used every dirty trick to win doctors and spread their deadly OxyContin opioids, ignoring the misery and death of tens of thousands while raking in up to 13 billion dollars and bribing every famous museum from the Louvre to the Metropolitan and Smithsonian to display their name?
Nor do I feel close to Amazon and Walmart, whose low prices and swift delivery reached the hearts and wallets of millions but drove their workers to brutal work rates while repulsing every whiff of protective unions – and wrecking countless retailers and healthier city centers in towns and cities all over my country.
And while I recognize their sometimes amazing skill, artistry, even genius, winning huge audiences in America and around the world, I cannot see Hollywood or studios like Disney’s as objects of my pride.
Downright alarming for me, in fact, are the amazing advances of Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Apple, and now, looming ever larger, AI, in controlling our social lives, or lack of them, burrowing into our thinking processes and achieving unheard of dominance in the everyday lives of billions.
And I feel real hatred toward the companies behind the NRA, buying politicians by the dozen so as to sell warfare guns by the million, frightening parents all over the country, but also shoppers, movie-goers, deliverers of goods like nowhere else in the world while filling the armories of gangs plotting to “defend our America” from any aspect of democratic rule.
Worst of all are those billionaire monsters, with five in the lead, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, whose entire mission is to encourage preparations for military confrontation, even now opposing every move towards peace, encouraging the provocation and continuation of any and every conflict, up to and including an atomic one!
These companies, these billionaires – and the Congress, Supreme Court, all the courtrooms and state houses they control, proudly display their red-white-blue lapel pins even while wheeler-dealing and merging with dominant siblings elsewhere. How then can I join in their patriotic flag-waving?
It is another USA which I love! It is the one courageously co-founded by 4000 ragged farmers, war veterans, who fought back in Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. It includes Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and John Brown, who took up arms against the slave-owners, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, the Grimké sisters and William Lloyd Garrison who used words as weapons, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner who raised their voices in Washington.
Nor can I forget Tecumseh, Osceola, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, all great Americans!
With the development of industry came the fight-back of working people. We know only the leaders’ names; few today know even them. The ironmonger William Sylvis founded the first one, the National Labor Union. The Knights of Labor opened up to women and Black workers. The railroad strikers of 1877, met by a “diet of lead” as “Communards and Communists.” There was the May Day parade of thousands for the 8-hour day in Chicago in 1886, the “naval battle” of the Homestead steel strikers against boatloads of scabs and Pinkerton goons. And so many dramatic personalities, like the coal miners’ fighting old Mother Jones, or the one-eyed “Wobbly” Big Bill Haywood with his closed fist as a symbol of unity of all nationalities and beautiful young Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who with him helped 25,000 miserably poor women textile workers in Lawrence win their fight for ”bread and roses”. Also great Socialists like Eugene V. Debs or John Reed (who later became a Communist). There were men I saw and heard; Professor DuBois, and the incomparable singer, actor and fighter for freedom and peace, Paul Robeson! They all represent the USA I’m proud of - my America!
Nor should we forget the martyrs, like those imprisoned and hung in Chicago after the Haymarket Market trial, or the great songster Joe Hill, killed by a firing squad in 1915, the part-Indian union organizer Frank Little, lynched in Butte in 1917, Ella May Wiggins, murdered in a textile strike 1927 in Gastonia, NC, the ten peaceful steel strike paraders killed by cops on Memorial Day 1937 in Chicago. Nor can we forget the murdered Fred Hampton, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, all fatally hated by the FBI. I would also include both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, electrocuted in 1953 in Sing-Sing for atomic weapon espionage, whose motivation was to alter a dangerously one-sided imbalance in weaponry and thus to save the world from an atomic threat endangering everyone - a belief that internationalist responsibility and genuine patriotism need never contradict each other.
These people and so many others unknown by name are my reason for loving my America – whose history, language and culture are closest to my heart, though without a trace of condescension towards my fellow people with similar struggles in other countries around the world.
My life, for so many years away from home, leads me to unhappy comparisons, but also hopes for my country. It is heart-breaking to read of the thousands – primarily Black women with children – who are evicted in one year in one US city alone! Or to watch it happen in Michael Moore’s film! I can feel my tears arising when I see videos of long, long lines of Americans, often in cars, waiting to receive food charity. Or the lines on foot, circling whole city blocks, to get needed medical or dental care they can not afford. I read of young people graduating college burdened with $30-40,00 in debts they can never pay back, growing with mounting interest rates. Or of working people, forced by stagnant wage scales to borrow at months’ ends, with obscene interest rates condemning them to constant worry, tears, to fears of eviction. I think of children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods; rarely if ever seeing green landscapes, hearing songbirds, wondering at star-studded heavens - and forced into hopeless lives of petty crime, police violence, prison labor camps – or sudden death.
I saw samples of this in my early years, in East Boston, Black sections of Roxbury, in Buffalo. Much more recently I was shocked by the misery of homelessness I saw in Los Angeles, San Francisco and my own hometown. It seemed to be almost accepted by many as a normal way of things.
But my life had taught me that it is so unnecessary! It is not normal! I lived nearly forty years in a small country, the (East) German Democratic Republic, where such conditions were unknown. Though war-wrecked, lacking almost any natural resources, discriminated against by all the western world, it created a new form of society; where rent cost at most 5% or10% of income, where evictions were forbidden, where all education, from a nursery to a doctorate were not just free but, for apprentices and students, was aided by cost-of-living assistance, making jobbing unnecessary and student debt unknown. Where an affordable monthly tax meant that all medical and dental care, all physical rehab “cures”, all prescription drugs, eyeglasses, hearing aids, were completely covered without paying a penny extra. Women received six months paid leave after having a baby (and if desired another half-year, unpaid but with job guarantee). Food pantries for the needy were fully unknown, even the worst-off group, usually war widows who had never learned a trade and did unskilled work with low retirement rates were guaranteed a low-price roof over their heads and, almost free, one big hot meal a day. Abortions, after 1972, were free of charge and free of censure. Even ex-convicts were guaranteed a home and a job.
When I reflect on such comparisons I must wonder whether my super-modern homeland is, in some ways, still in a Stone Age. All the advantages my family and I – and the others – enjoyed in the GDR should be normal parts of daily life in the wealthy USA - really tomorrow if not today!
But halt, many will say! Those achievements were accompanied by repression, limitations on freedom of speech, a regulated media, farcical no-choice elections, fear of an ubiquitously snooping Stasi! A wall prevented its citizenry from traveling or departing the country, even shooting some who tried. Why did so many want to leave such a Utopia? And finally vote against it?
The complicated answer involves the history of Germany, pressures from the East and especially from the West, the many family connections with a West Germany pampered almost since 1945, with Marshall Plan millions and more so as to act as a magnet for easterners, with a commodity assortment, home construction financing and travel opportunities almost unequaled in the world, and transmitted with a proficiency in propaganda methods learned both from Goebbels and from newer techniques from Edward Bernays and “Madison Avenue” – and set against an apparatus of aging men, devoted anti-fascists and socialists most of them but so hardened by their fight against the Nazis - and by the Stalin era - that they rarely found successful rapport with a population only just emerged from fascism, then inundated by flashy US super-culture in all the arts, even in language.
But I have an additional theory regarding all such comparisons.
The heads of every form of government - capitalist, communist, democratic, fascist, open, repressive – have one basic motivation; to stay in power, either individually for a king or dictator or for a party structure, or for a social system. They must be watchful and wary about any cracks or crumbling.
In the USA, in Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Netherlands, where two-thirds or more of the population are relatively satisfied, with a home, a car or two, modern appliances and electronics, vacation travel, a ruling government can afford to permit many freedoms. “Let the radicals spout phrases at Hyde Park, Union Square or wherever. Let them publish leaflets and newspapers which at most a few thousand will see or read. Perhaps let them form little leftist parties which often fail to outdo the 0.1 % level. Such liberties, sometimes won by courageous battles in the past, like the ”Free Speech” fights of the IWW “Wobblies” in the Northwest, may have become traditions; long may they endure! But, just to make sure, have some built-in safeguards. One is an election system which discourages poor people from voting. “What’s the use? They are all crooked. They make promises and break them”. Then too, poorer people read or watch less news, may not be fluent in the main language, may have well-planned difficulties in getting registered and voting. Many who do vote are caught in the “lesser evil” pattern. “He’s not much good, or no good, but the other man is really fearful!” The media plays a major part, distracting readers, listeners, viewers with enthusiasm for “our team” in sports, or curiosity about the latest royal wedding or film star scandal – or with details on every crime, accident, catastrophe. All very human, but all distracting, very skillfully, away from genuine problems or their solutions.
But what if new crises cause dissatisfaction, if prices soar, jobs get scarcer, evictions multiply? One of the commonest antidotes is to encourage, for the most part surreptitiously, divisive animosities; southerners against northerners, working people in fly-over states against elitists in coastal Ivy Leagues (currently labeled “woke”), Protestants v. Catholics, Irish v. Jews – all have played a part. And always, ever since the USA was born (and earlier), against that ”Black threat” against “our” (white) women, our (white) jobs and pay scales, our (white) status as superiors, even if we are at the bottom of (white) society. Add on the variants: against the Indigenous, against other incoming immigrants, especially poor ones like (at first) the Irish, the Jews, Italians, Mexicans and Central Americans, Chinese, Japanese, but always against Blacks, who could least easily assimilate and ”disappear”!
If these methods do not suffice, if conditions worsen and rebelliousness increases, one device almost always works; nationalism, antipathy towards other countries, fears of being attacked, either militarily or surreptitiously, as in the McCarran-McCarthy years (when I was a victim) - and now perhaps again.
But if nothing else works then tough methods! Firing people, jailing them, then batons, pepper spray, water cannon, bullets – as seen in recent years in many countries of all political colors, from Minsk to Portland, Havanna to Santiago, Barcelona to Stuttgart. And France! Against “goodies” or “baddies!”
Yes, if the need is felt they all do it! But here we find an interesting difference. It is far easier to achieve non-rebellious satisfaction if there is plenty of food, clothing and other necessities at prices a majority can afford, while still making plenty of profits.
And this is more achievable if the economy can import cheap bananas from countries where barefoot peasants carry heavy loads of still-green fruit at sub-existence wages. Or where children help their parents pick cocoa, coffee or tea for pennies instead of going to school, where African villagers walk miles to dig cobalt or coltan, almost with their bare hands, where young women sew and spin fashionable apparel for hunger wages in shaky, fire-prone buildings from Bangladesh to Cambodia, Vietnam, south China (though no longer at such impossible wages and conditions in the latter). But also “at home”, where Mexican and Central American laborers harvest luscious Californian fruits, berries, nuts and vegetables but live in hovels, fearful of deportation, while kids as young as 14 clean butchering machinery for long hours and African-American men and especially women rotate from hot Amazon Co. warehouses to the remaining assembly lines in the rust belt.
What does this mean? Some differences are based on national traditions and history – the open West in North America, immigrants who were often the most daring and independent in their countries, a French Revolution - as opposed to century-long repression and histories marred by terrible invasions in Russia and much of East Europe. Nevertheless, in the GDR I saw that a major factor of government insecurity, hence pressures to preserve itself and its non-profit system, was because the GDR did not – could not – provide its population with products of the toil of miserably-paid pickers, harvesters and palm oil toters or coltan diggers in southern continents, nor were there sources of underpaid slum-based workers at home, forced to take any job with no questions asked, including lower wages for women and child labor. The GDR got no cheap bananas from exploited Guatemalans, or tulips and roses from Kenya. Yes, it did get towels and tea from China but no easily affordable H & M shirts or GAP dresses while their makers got pennies, supermarket cashiers got low wages – and the men at the top got millions.
In the GDR this did not result in worse living or working conditions, indeed, in many ways it meant the contrary, but it did mean a much narrower assortment of consumer goods. Since the main staples were kept at almost absurdly low prices, most people had money to spend, which meant that high quality, modern and fashionable goods were far rarer, disappeared quickly in the shops – or were absent. This situation, worsened by the constant advertisement of more and better items “on the other side” was a major cause of discontent, which led to repressive measures aimed at preserving a far more humane, truly modern social system, but one which was largely taken for granted by those who grew up with it.
This was a vicious circle which meant that the GDR was already threatened in its existence from pre-natal days, hated above all by the powerful corporations it had thrown out. In the end it was defeated, broken, almost totally erased, industriously, socially, culturally and if possible historically.
What about “my” USA? Though never threatened from without since 1812 or in its unified government control since 1865, its leading lights resorted again and again to the KKK violence of the Reconstruction and post World War I and II eras, to the mass arrests of anti-war Socialists and Wobblies in 1917-1918, the arrests, prison terms, thousands of lost jobs and broken lives from 1950 to 1960 (and 1100 pages of FBI files about me). There were long periods when opposition was possible and some periodicals were never banned. But it seems clear to me; the freedoms which, though attacked, only rarely disappeared fully in the western democracies, may be partly products of past struggles and present fight-back but also, in great measure, are based on the poverty of millions in the southern hemisphere and in domestic slums. Whenever those millions rebel – if they rebel – the freedoms are reduced, limited, or eliminated. And by whom?
Major decisions today are increasingly determined by an ever smaller, tighter group of multimillionaires and billionaires in every sector of the economy. Their seemingly unstoppable expansion has resulted in three giant menaces to all of us. One, of course, is the threat of climate change, of poisoned oceans, air and soil, due to policies still pursued by the fossil fuel companies, who knew full well of the growing, irretrievable damage they were causing but spent million denying it, just like the equally pernicious, greedy chemical, herbicide, insecticide and genetic seed giants.
The second main threat, overtaking the first one, is created and pursued by the armament makers who need and want ever more warfare, most dangerously now in the Ukraine, a conflict, pursued mercilessly by Putin but purposefully prepared and provoked by the rulers of NATO who, hand in hand with the Lockheeds and Raytheons, call themselves crusaders for American-style democracy against “authoritarianism” but who – for me – are America’s greatest enemies – and mine.
The third Behemoth or Goliath, already actively multiplying in one country after the other, once again in Germany, also in the USA, is moving to safeguard the power of the other two menaces. I mean the menace of fascism. It is mostly in the wings as yet, but conniving to move full stage as soon as it finds it necessary – as in Germany in 1933 or Chile in 1973. And all three are based fundamentally on the power of the top 1%, rooted in the profit system, which is forced by its very nature to continue growing and expanding. They must be stopped, by vigorous Davids, but who, unlike the Biblical David, achieve strength only by their numbers and their militant organization.
They can win small victories here and there, much to be welcomed. But these Goliaths cannot be halted by small defeats. And certainly not by compromises. If we turn again to the Bible we find the fearful Horses of the Apocalypse – sometimes interpreted as meaning pestilence, war, famine and death – all too relevant in today’s world! The only real means of defeating these menaces – and in the final analysis saving America, and not only America, means halting them, breaking their power, totally removing their profit-based greed, selfishness and disregard for the misery they cause. This ever tighter group of multimillionaires and billionaires must be shorn of its wealth and its power, which are much the same thing. No more private yachts, jets, multiple mansions, skyscrapers in central New York, or central Berlin. No more tourist flights into space! A halt to a system which is poisoning, heating or flooding the world, one of ragged, toiling children and drudgery-beladen women and men, must be sought and, most immediately, with an end to the brutal conflicts before it is too late, now worst of all in Ukraine but already threatening to metastasize.
The world needs millions to join in this fight, this fight back! In the USA there have been models enough of genuine patriots. There is again a need for American patriots who are at the same time “world patriots”. As a teen-ager I joined in Woody Guthrie’s wartime victory song, ”When the Yanks go marching in!” He meant Berlin. How the world has changed since then - and even turned me upside down geographically! But I’ll still join in with his chorus lines:
“Boys, I want to be in that number when we set this whole world free!“
And – as a patriot in Woody’s sense, I plan to stay in that number as long as I am able!
Victor Grossman, born in NYC, fled McCarthy-era menaces as a young draftee, landed in East Germany where he observed the rise and fall of its German Democratic Republic (GDR). He has described his own life in his autobiography Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), and analyzed the GDR and questions of capitalism and socialism in Germany and the USA, with his provocative conclusions, along with humor, irony and occasional sarcasm in all directions, in A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee (New York: Monthly Review Press). His address is wechsler_grossman [at] yahoo.de (also for a free sub to the Berlin Bulletins sent out by MR Online).
Thanks to the author for sending ths article to Portside. It was also posted on MR Online: