Patriotism, Tom Paine observed, is not best measured in times of national comfort and quiet. It is in times of crisis, when the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots have retreated to the safety of official talking points and unquestioning loyalty, that those who truly understand the meaning and merit of the American experiment come to its defense. On the 230th anniversary of the launch of that experiment, let us reflect on those who have met the test, noting in particular that some of the boldest expressions of patriotism have come from groups not necessarily associated with dissent.
Consider America’s librarians. Since the enactment of the Patriot Act in 2001, the American Library Association (ALA) has been at the forefront of the fight to defend freedom of inquiry and thought from provisions of the act that allow the Justice Department to subpoena the records of libraries and bookstores. The librarians succeeded in getting the House to adopt language protecting library records in 2005–only to have it stripped from the bill to which it was attached by an Administration-friendly House-Senate conference committee.
But the librarians have not just been lobbying to change the Patriot Act, they’ve been on the front lines of exposing its abuses. When four Connecticut librarians challenged an attempt by the FBI to use a National Security Letter to obtain records of who was reading what in that state, the Justice Department slapped a gag order on them. But the 64,000-member ALA and its Freedom to Read Foundation stood up for the librarians, working with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of American Publishers and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression to make a federal case of the issue. In May, after the FBI dropped its defense of the gag order–and shortly before it withdrew its demand for the records–a federal appeals court declared that order moot, and the librarians were at last free to speak out. Peter Chase, director of the Plainville, Connecticut, public library, explained that he and his fellow librarians decided to fight because of their frustration at receiving the National Security Letter even as “the government was telling Congress that it didn’t use the Patriot Act against libraries and that no one’s rights had been violated. I felt that I just could not be part of this fraud being foisted on our nation.”
The ALA isn’t the only group challenging the Administration’s disregard for basic liberties. The American Bar Association is investigating whether George W. Bush exceeded his constitutional authority when he reserved the right to ignore more than 750 laws enacted since he took office. The American Medical Association has adopted guidelines that make it unethical for physicians to participate in interrogating detainees. And 399 communities and eight states have answered the Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s call for passing resolutions upholding civil liberties.
Those defenders of basic rights are the patriotic heroes of this Fourth of July, as are those who exercise those rights, like the Code Pink members, who will fast for peace outside the Bush White House on the Fourth, and the Raging Grannies, who will join parades and picnics around the country. Fittingly, in the city where it all began, a fife-and-drum corps will lead a parade of anti-Iraq War activists through the streets of Philadelphia on the eve of the Fourth to a gathering where they will sign a Declaration of Peace. They are responding to Paine’s call, as relevant now as it was more than 200 years ago: “Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!”