28 June 2008


Yesterday, June 27, Emma Goldman was 139 years old. So long as there is anyone left alive who loves freedom and who loves the U.S. for the real reasons that it is great, she lives on. It is fitting that the celebration of her birth should come close to July Fourth, Independence Day.

Here's what she had to say about the U.S. while she was on trial for speaking out against the draft during the First World War - another "war for democracy." (I think I may have blogged about this before, but it bears repeating, especially during an election year.)

"Who is the real patriot, or rather what is the kind of patriotism that we represent? The kind of patriotism we represent is the kind of patriotism which loves America with open eyes. Our relation towards America is the same as the relation of a man who loves a woman, who is enchanted by her beauty and yet who cannot be blind to her defects. And so I wish to state here, in my own behalf and in behalf of hundreds of thousands whom you decry and state to be antipatriotic, that we love America, we love her beauty, we love her riches, we love her mountains and her forests, and above all we love the people who have produced her wealth and riches, who have created all her beauty, we love the dreamers and the philosophers and the thinkers who are giving America liberty. But that must not make us blind to the social faults of America. That cannot compel us to be inarticulate to the terrible wrongs committed in the name of the country.
"We simply insist, regardless of all protests to the contrary, that this war is not a war for democracy. If it were a war for the purpose of making democracy safe for the world, we would say that democracy must first be safe for America before it can be safe for the world."

Emma Goldman came here from Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. My family showed up about twenty-five years later from Poland, the Ukraine and Romania. And like pretty much everyone else who shows up here, they all came looking for something better; for freedom, opportunity, elbow-room, to live in a society where they could be largely left alone to be themselves. And for the most part, with some terrible exceptions, they found all that.

And they also found each other. Last weekend, here in Los Angeles, I went to a free music festival in Pasadena. There were bands from Mexico, Cambodia, Africa, South America, even places as exotic and foreign as Europe and New York. Earlier in the day I'd had an Armenian lunch. That night my friends and I had a Chinese dinner. And that is not an atypical weekend for many people in America's big cities.

At its greatest, the U.S. isn't a melting pot, it's a stew in which you can taste and savor all of the individual ingredients while also getting the strong flavor of the whole.

And I'm pretty sure that's one of the things that Emma Goldman loved about this country. And one of the things that she understood it takes open eyes and vigilance and tolerance and agitation and speaking up to protect.

On Independence Day we can best celebrate the U.S. both by our willingness to fight for the many things that are right about this country, and against those that are wrong.

By the way: To celebrate both Emma and the U.S.'s birthdays, I made a donation to the Emma Goldman Papers Project at UC Berkeley. The project is laboring to publish a comprehensive four-volume set of Emma Goldman's papers: speeches, letters, articles, pamphlets. This is a treasure that should not be lost. If you're interested in learning more about Emma Goldman, and about the Papers Project, (or in making a donation of your own), you can click here.

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