Sometimes Dissent is Patriotic—Other

Times Only Selfish

Dissent is Patriotic—Other Times Only Selfish

Despite my evolving skepticism about bumper-sticker politics, I placed a small sticker, which the ACLU had mailed me as a thank-you for a donation, over the product logo on my laptop. “Dissent is Patriotic,” it read; rising behind the words: an image of the Statue of Liberty, her right arm raised in a fist rather than lifting her torch.

My policy is to avoid partisan statements in my classroom, but I think most of us teachers have found it impossible to avoid taking a stand on important social issues. In said classroom, for instance, a Pride flag hangs next to my whiteboard. While I consider the flag a clear statement of inclusiveness—and the least of what I owe my many LGBTQ students—there are millions of Americans (as I was reminded by Clarence Thomas’ concurrence in the recent Supreme Court Decision on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health) who would not consider my Pride flag “apolitical.”

Is my Dissent sticker apolitical? It is not inherently liberal or conservative, I could argue—both liberals and conservatives dissent daily in our legislatures—but for some, the ACLU in the corner of the sticker tips its hand (or fist, in the case of the Statue). Despite the ACLU’s long dedication to defending the Bill of Rights, some still perceive it as decidedly left-leaning.

Here’s what the ACLU declares on its website:

The ACLU has no political affiliations and makes no test of individuals’ ideological leanings a condition of membership or employment. Members and staff of the national ACLU and its affiliates may be Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Federalists, Libertarians, or members of any political party or no party at all.

What the ACLU asks of its staff and officials is that they consistently defend civil liberties and the Constitution.

But if you were to visit the Christian Heritage Fellowship’s website, you would encounter these words from their Executive Director, Stephen Flick:

“[T]he ACLU hopes to turn America Democratic ‘blue’ by forcing its liberal Socialistic and Communistic agenda upon all America.”

Like many Americans, I have been watching the Select Committee’s hearings on the January 6 insurrection. This coming academic year, I will discuss the hearings with my students in U.S. Government. As I’ve watched film footage of the insurrectionists, I’ve been struck by their fundamental belief that they are modern-day revolutionary patriots. Where I see ill-informed vandals whipped into a violent frenzy by men with selfish motives, they see themselves as downtrodden freedom-lovers storming the deep-state Bastille.

Some of the insurrectionists carried 1776 flags; newly elected Congresswoman Lauren Boebert tweeted, “Today is 1776” to her followers. Before they breached the Capitol, some insurrectionists were chanting, “Whose house? Our house!” (And don’t we, after all, call the Capitol “The People’s House”?) Not long ago, after I saw a Three-Percenter bumper sticker on a truck parked outside our local County Building, I looked the symbol up online and found that the group takes its name from the historical notion that, in their words, “During the American Revolution, the active forces in the field against the King’s tyranny never amounted to more than 3% of the colonists. Three Percenters today identify with this 3% because they were true patriots fighting for the freedoms the nation we love and honor was founded on.

Three Percenters intend to maintain their God-given natural rights to liberty and property. History itself, for good or ill, is made by determined minorities. Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed citizens to change the world.”

If there were any doubt about the means by which the Three Percenters would assert their “God-given natural rights to liberty and property,” their words appear below an uncredited painting of British Redcoats charging toward a band of American patriots who, thanks to some clever photo-augmentation, are carrying and loading modern assault rifles.

We all want our students to have a voice in our communities, and I doubt there’s a U.S. Government teacher in America who doesn’t encourage their students to “let their voice be heard.” In most cases, when we encourage our students to take an active part in our democracy, we want our students to vote, to write to their elected leaders, and to protest peacefully in a local park. (I doubt I’m unique in granting extra credit points to students who attend peaceful protests, no matter the “side” they take.) Someday, much to my pleasure, one of them may run for political office or serve on a government committee.

But I wouldn’t want any of my students to have stormed the Capitol, nor to have threatened our elected leaders in the room where they pass laws—even laws I oppose in my heart and bones—and certainly not to have beaten policemen with fire extinguishers and flagpoles.

It occurs to me that encouraging dissent is not enough. Indeed, I think most teachers recognize as much. How, then, do we “educate dissent”? One obvious answer is to present a cogent summary of the principles of non-violent civil disobedience. But at the same time, after such a summary we would have to ask our students an essential follow-up question, like “In the past year, would a non-violent response to the Russian Army be appropriate for the people of Ukraine?” (As much as it troubles me to say so, I think the answer is a clear “Of course not.”) As hard as it is, we must be willing to show the limits of personal codes and cherished beliefs.

For me, the January 6th Hearings keep reifying a simple principle: We can’t discuss the profound and debatable issues of governance—What is the role of government in our individual lives? What do we owe the commons? How do we share our prosperity? How do we protect human rights? How do we insure the integrity of elections?—when we are armed and shouting at each other. And more fundamentally, we can’t debate such profound issues when powerful people are knowingly repeating lies as truth. It might seem like the height of historical naïvete to insist that our politicians speak the truth, but civil discourse is impossible without it.

Lady Liberty’s raised fist on my ACLU sticker is a potent symbol of dissent; it might put some in mind of the Black Power sign that insists on dignity for Black Americans. But had Lady Liberty retained her torch, perhaps we would be reminded of the Light of Truth which we citizens—and teachers especially—must endeavor to shine on our government. We’ll not make our way out of our current crisis without that Light.