Last month, I wrote an essay about the violence in Charlottesville. Afterwards, I received an email from a Guardians member who told me I should stick to the environment and not get involved in racial politics. I understand that many people are more comfortable when we each stay inside our own little bubbles, sticking to our narrow interests and not venturing into other matters. But I can’t do that.
I can’t do that because we live in a unique time in this country. A time when the president seeks actively to divide Americans against each other by getting us to focus on our differences. He does this so we won’t form alliances with people we might otherwise dismiss because they don’t pass our own personal purity test.
At the heart of the president’s agenda is the idea that half of us don’t care about America—that half of us aren’t really good Americans.
Two weeks ago today [on Sept. 22, 2017], the president attacked football players who choose to kneel during the national anthem. He called them “sons of bitches” and displayed a level of indignation that, for some reason, he was unable to display towards the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Some explain this by saying he is merely impulsive, that he doesn’t think before he speaks. But I believe there is a sinister strategy at work.
The strategy is this. The very concept of patriotism divides people. Easily, quickly and effectively.
Long before Trump came along, the political right cornered the market on patriotism. They did this by defining patriotism in a way that excludes many of us from embracing the term. They claim a “patriot” is someone who never questions war, who refuses to admit that our country has ever done anything wrong, who wears a flag pin on their lapel and stands for the national anthem.
I need to pause for a moment to acknowledge that the word “patriotism” is problematic in itself, as it derives from the Latin word for father. I would happily go with “matriotic” over “patriotic”—or even better, I’d like something gender-neutral. But what I want to focus on this evening is how the concept of patriotism gives very real political power to those who own it, by bringing a significant number of people over to their cause. People who are not ideological about big government, or free trade, or health care—people whose only ideology is this: they love their country.
Perhaps America is unique in that so many of us can’t even say, “I love my country.” Why is that? Is Trump right? Do liberals really hate America? I don’t think so.
I think liberals feel about our country the way someone feels about their pot-smoking brother who drinks too much at Thanksgiving and borrows money all the time. They’re ashamed and embarrassed. People on the right know this and they happily exploit it. It’s not hard for political strategists to paint the picture that environmentalists don’t love America, that if you care about coyotes or trees or the sage grouse, you’re not a real American, not a good American.
You know who I think is a good American? Noppadol. [Editor’s note: photographer Noppadol Paothong showcased photos from his new book of sage grouse photography and gave a speech prior to John’s address at the Gala. Noppadol immigrated to the United States from Thailand.] Noppadol chose the United States. If you’re born here, it’s more like an arranged marriage, but for Noppadol it was passion. He told me he chose the U.S. because it was “a beacon of hope”, because he wanted his daughter to grow up in a place where everyone has the same opportunity to follow their dreams.
If the president has his way, we will have fewer Noppadols, fewer immigrants who chose to come here because they feel the kind of love for this country that should be celebrated—the kind of love that requires more dedication than merely standing for the national anthem. Which brings me back to how in feeding divisions—by looking for imperfections instead of possibilities—we miss the opportunity to come together to accomplish great things.
Divide and conquer is a strategy that is thousands of years old. Let me give you just one example of how it works in American politics. As you know, the wealth gap in this country is larger than ever and only getting worse. Real wages have not risen in more than 30 years. One has to wonder how that can happen in a democracy. It happens like this: politicians divide the economically disadvantaged along racial and cultural lines and pit those groups against each other. They suggest to poor white Americans that minorities and immigrants are the real reason they don’t have good jobs. When in fact, the real reason is that companies are taking record-setting profits and not reinvesting in their workers. It’s classic distraction—“it’s the immigrants, it’s minorities, it’s the gays—they’re the problem.” When we all know the real problem is the dangerous mixture of power and greed.
From the time I was a child, I believed the most important thing I could do would be to defend the vulnerable from the powerful. Right now, the things I cherish most are very vulnerable—the land, the animals that animate it, and the core values of our country. Most of politics is a struggle between two ideas: the weak are meant to serve the powerful or the powerful are meant to serve the weak. The remarkable idea at the core of our nation is the notion that the vulnerable have rights equal to those of the powerful. In 1776, that ideal was tragically far from being a reality. But, over time, we slowly move closer. At our best, America has been the guardian of those ideals. At our best, we inspire the world. At our best, we recognize we still have a long way to go.
For some of us wage equality is over here, social justice is over here, animal rights is over here and patriotism is somewhere way over there. But for me, they’ve all always been right here [gestures to his heart].
For me, it’s all about taking on the powerful, about leveling the playing field, about fighting for the underdog. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but the world has always been kind of simple to me—the heroes stand up to the bullies. Bullies don’t win an argument with facts, they win an argument with force. If the facts are against them, they start calling people names.
Take Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke is frustrated that he can’t give away our public lands quickly enough. He is frustrated because some people at the Interior Department actually care about the interior—they care about our precious land. So, like any frustrated bully, he started calling them names. He said that one third of his employees aren’t patriotic. He essentially called them traitors.
Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as “love or devotion for one’s country.” How can their desire to defend our land from the fossil fuel industry be anything other than the highest expression of love and devotion?
While that idea seems self-evident, it is undermined by the narrative that “if you care about the land, you don’t care about the country.” Politicians claim that if you care about climate change, you don’t care about jobs—and by extension, you don’t care about your neighbor’s well-being. On the contrary, progressives and environmentalists know that our neighbor’s well-being depends on living in a country with clean air, clean water, diverse wildlife, diverse opinions, diverse races and a fundamental respect for every living creature.
How can the desire to defend our land from the fossil fuel industry be anything other than the highest expression of love and devotion?
Sadly, too many of our leaders encourage mutual contempt instead of mutual respect. They do this because they know these toxic narratives will divide us, making it easier for the powerful to dominate the vulnerable.
The people who most oppose our goals pray that patriots and progressives will never embrace each other. They depend on dividing us, on convincing us that if you love social justice and the environment, you can’t also love the United States. They depend on convincing us that if you are patriotic, you cannot defend a mountain lion’s right to live or fight alongside Native Americans to protect their land.
The mission of WildEarth Guardians requires a wide range of talent and ability. It requires smart and dedicated people who are experts in ecology, organizing, fundraising, and the law. It also requires strategic communications that engage as many people as we possibly can, that bring the largest possible number of allies to our cause.
And believe me, there are allies out there. There are those who would join us. How do I know? Because our opponents spend so much energy convincing us that we share no common cause, that we are hopelessly divided. And one of their most powerful weapons is the idea that we don’t love our country. But we can take that weapon away. We can take that weapon away by embracing patriotism.
I have a confession to make. I am part of the problem. Despite the angels of my better nature, I often find myself looking for imperfections in other people. I have just as many purity tests as anybody here, maybe more. I grew up in a family of judgers. And judgers have all kinds of purity tests—with our friends, our family, our allies, and our adversaries.
I have another confession to make. This is a twelve-step group, right? Seriously, my confession is this: I am a patriot. I do love my country. I love my country like I love my kids. I know they aren’t perfect. I want them to become wiser and kinder. But I am committed to them with all my heart. So, yes, I am patriotic, and my definition of patriotism is this: it means loving and defending our real national monuments, not monuments carved from marble, but monuments created by nature and the human heart. Monuments like equality, diversity, freedom of speech, the giant sequoias, the gray wolf and the Rio Grande.
When I was younger I had a simpler idea of what patriotism meant. It was standing on top of Pike’s Peak, looking out at the Rockies and the prairies, and understanding for the very first time the words “purple mountain majesties/above the fruited plain”. It was being 10 years old, the year of the Bicentennial, listening to the Beach Boys and watching fireworks explode over the Washington Monument on the Fourth of July.
As I’ve grown older and wiser, my definition of patriotism has changed. This is my definition now: a patriot cares deeply about the well-being of all Americans—left, right, gay, straight, rich, poor, black, or white. A patriot cares deeply about equality. A patriot cares more about freedom of speech than she does about the flag. A patriot has the courage to see our imperfection, but embrace our possibility. And a patriot always defends the land—not just from foreign invaders, but from those who would sell it to the highest bidder.
If we can own the term “patriotism”, and insist that being patriotic means defending these values and this vision, we will compel others to join us. And make no mistake, the cause that brings us together tonight—defending our land—is not distinct from these other causes we care about, like equality and freedom. They are united by a conviction that the vulnerable must and should be protected. They are united by the conviction that the vulnerable need guardians who will fight for their rights. In short, they are united by love.