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Patriotism Isn’t the Answer

The warm comfort of home is a perfect narcotic for the anxiety that arrives after disaster. When you’re unmoored from your roots, a sense of belonging to a community makes you feel grounded. Remember the bipartisan support of US troops when they were sent to Iraq by the George W. Bush administration to shock Saddam Hussein into submission in March 2003. Recall the invocation for national unity after Americans watched in horror as white supremacists, equipped with tiki torches and guns, chanting into the summer night “Jews will not replace us!,” descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Think about the suburban neighborhoods where white, college-educated, affluent voters hang American flags on their white porches. They were a core constituency for the electoral coalition of Joe Biden, whose winning presidential campaign slogan against the undemocratic authoritarianism of Trump in 2020 was to “redeem the soul of the nation.” But patriotism is the last thing we need to stitch up our wounds. Patriotism is a dangerous anesthetic. It prevents us from knowing where or what our wounds are, and how exactly they ought to be treated. Patriotism establishes a community of us against them, where angels and demons are what we see instead of smart or bad policies. When the nation becomes what you profess undying allegiance toward, criticism is impossible.

Don’t be unflinchingly patriotic. Distrust anyone who declares that America is great no matter how many examples of the nation’s supremacy that they give. There’s a lot they’re hiding that they would rather ignore. Instead, make the nation bend to your loving example. Become an iconoclast. Ruthless skepticism pierces the piety of exceptionalism. Live a moral life that goes against what you’ll be told is sacred.

The Quaker John Woolman, born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1720, thought he would forever remain an upstanding entrepreneur in the colonial American community where he sold sugar, rum, and pork at reasonable prices in a local shop. Much to his own surprise, Woolman became a revolutionary. The catastrophe that shook him wide awake was the French and Indian War, or what later became known as the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). Woolman was stunned to hear some of his Quaker brethren who controlled the Pennsylvania legislature and whose faith commanded pacifism come out in defense of levying taxes on colonial subjects to support Britain in the conflict.

They did this, even though the news from the battlefront was terrifying. Thousands died in the battle between the two superpowers. Violence spread like wildfire throughout the colonies. The British, led by General Jeffrey Amherst, in 1760 shamelessly targeted Cherokee noncombatants in Virginia, children and women. They were enthusiastically helped by American settlers, who used scalping, pillaging, and theft to instill as much terror as possible in the Indigenous community. There were the “Paxton Boys,” a group of fifty Ulster-Scot vigilantes from Pennsylvania who, unprovoked, in December 1763 marched to a Susquehannock settlement, where they slaughtered six men and burned their homes.

Most Americans don’t protest war—and they didn’t back then—and this silence has consequences. When you don’t say anything, government can better continue its lethal policies. Remember that government relies on consent, so it begins to crumble when you say no! This became evident to Woolman when he praised seven young Quaker men, conscripted to fight in George Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War, when they went on a hunger strike and didn’t respond to daily roll calls.

Woolman was so inspired by their example that he changed his life, stunning acquaintances when he became what today might be described as anti-American. He was, in fact, guilty of breaking the laws his countrymen held dear. Woolman wouldn’t pay the war tax in 1755, remarking that it was better to “suffer patiently the distress of goods rather than pay actively.”1 But even more shocking was that Woolman quit selling gunpowder, stopped wearing dyed clothes made by the sweat of slaves, inspected the spoons he used for his meals to feel connected to the people whose hands crafted them, and chose to walk on foot rather than ride stagecoaches greased by child labor. Woolman preached regularly, but he stopped taking a fee for his ministerial services. Unlike his competitors, he never sued customers who racked up debt at his grocery store.

You don’t need the nation to save you. Live a moral example. Patriotism toward a nation whose policies are hypocritical and whose citizens do thoughtless things will leave you feeling empty. Don’t buy in. Being applauded as an upright citizen matters less than being a prophetic truth teller.

From Woolman’s example we can see that personal choices can be revolutionary. But not all of them are. What good is purchasing local organic produce or fair-trade coffee or American-made cars if the workers who make them don’t have health insurance, a living wage, or control over their workplace? Instead, fundamentally change how you understand the world and ensure that its unjust structures collapse. Remind everyone of the way that domination hidden from view shapes our sense of pleasure. How it’s systemic and designed to be this way.

To get your compatriots to change what feels familiar, you have to make a scene. Discomfort is the price of freedom. That’s why Woolman wouldn’t write up a bill of sale for an enslaved person in 1742. He discouraged hospitality toward slaveholders and refrained from consuming products from the West Indies. He inspired gossip when he walked through town in his memorable white hat and his unbleached cotton shirts—without cuffs, ruffles, and collars, which were stylish then. Woolman didn’t drink tea for reasons remarkably different than his countrymen who dumped 342 chests of it at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston in 1773. The Boston Tea Party protesters thought the British Crown was tyrannical in its overreaching tea tax. Taxation without representation? This wasn’t Woolman’s concern. Not at all. Woolman abstained from tea because it was sweetened by unpaid slave labor.

Woolman’s choices throughout his life point to a systemic analysis of power. He wasn’t singling out bad investors, crooked cops, or white supremacists but rather the profit drive of capitalism, the insatiable thirst of empire, and the dehumanizing logic of racism. All are joined at the hip, entwined, mutually reinforcing, in America. “Seed sewn with the tears of a confined oppressed people, harvest cut down by an overborne discontented reaper,” Woolman said, “makes bread less sweet to an honest man.”2

When Woolman arrived in Britain in 1772 after a harrowing journey across the sea, he was uninterested in studying the intricacies of British parliamentarism or beholding the breathtaking riches of the gentry. Well aware of where the story of a nation truly lies—in the lives of ordinary people—and why it’s impossible to be blindly loyal to a nation that covers up this story, Woolman kept records of the wages paid to day laborers and female spinners; the price of butter, cheese, and mutton; and the average cost of rent. As was customary for him, Woolman walked through the textile regions, where the runoff of dye leaking from wet cloth stained his white shoes and the hellscape of horse manure and waste overwhelmed his senses.3 This is how you get to know a country.

Bearing witness is a hallmark of revolutionary engagement, but so is building a just world, even if it’s nowhere to be found around you. In 1763, Woolman officiated at the wedding of a formerly enslaved Black man, William Boen, who was part of his New Jersey congregation. This when slavery was widespread in New Jersey and racism was as ordinary as going to church. Woolman organized a New Jersey association whose goal was to purchase two thousand acres of land near the Pine Barrens for a sovereign Indian settlement. Woolman didn’t believe that reparations for unpaid enslaved labor was a political nonstarter—he saw it as a moral imperative. To make something possible, you have to give yourself permission to believe it’s possible. In the 1760s, Woolman began calculating what debt he owed to someone who was stolen from Guinea at age forty who worked until he died. Adding 3 percent interest and compounding it every ten years, Woolman determined that the man’s children should receive about 141 pounds.4

Unlike the British Crown, which demanded political allegiance from him, or his Quaker community, who wanted him to be a loyal member, Woolman never wanted to be sanctified. He asked that his clothing be traded away to pay for his funeral. The gravedigger who buried him in an unmarked grave on October 9, 1772, in York, England, worked in exchange for Woolman’s tattered white shoes. Even in death, Woolman tried to overturn the cynicism that encourages sickening cruelty and breathtaking thoughtlessness. What a life. The Philadelphia Quakers thought so, and in 1774, they posthumously published 1,200 copies of Woolman’s Journal, which ran 436 pages long.

Today’s activists may know nothing about this eighteenth-century pacifist, who in his time was known more as a curiosity than an inspiration, but you see him among the hunger strikers across US prisons who protest living conditions that violate the UN Declaration of Human Rights. You see him among the young kids who walk out of school to protest the world burning, and among the Wall of Moms who, arms locked together, form a human chain to protect from federal law enforcement young Portland activists protesting the police killings of unarmed Black men and women. Like Woolman, these citizens don’t ask what they can do for their country but what their country can do for them, and for those they’ve never met. To finally, perhaps for the first time, make that country worth loving.

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