Defending the Right of Radical Dissent Is the Highest Expression of Patriotism by John Nichols




Donald Trump imagines July 4 as a time for tanks, flyovers and military parading. For myself, I tend toward the view expressed by George Washington in the farewell address he delivered at the close of his presidency. Americans, he counseled, would do well to “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

Washington’s warning “to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism” was a good one. A straitjacketed liberty, which imagines patriotism to be expressed only  in the most cautious and predictable forms, is antithetical to the American experiment. The most enlightened initiators of that experiment proudly recalled their revolt against the constraints of monarchy and colonial authority. And the best of their number,  Tom Paine, recognized the necessity of a maintaining the revolutionary “Spirit of ’76” that would expand the notion of liberty far beyond what was understood by the more cautious, compromised and conflicted of the founders.

“Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it,” Paine announced in The Crisis, “but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.”

This is the true faith of the American experiment, as it has been handed down, across the generations, to those who would demand not just the rhetoric but the reality of “liberty and justice for all.” It is a faith that says it is possible–and often necessary–to be both a patriot and a radical.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss examines this premise in a revealing new book on his own family history and on clashing views of patriotism, A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father” (Simon & Schuster). Maraniss recalls the youthful radicalism of his father, Elliott Maraniss, a distinguished  journalist who was long associated with a newspaper with which I have also been associated, The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin.

As a World War II veteran, father, newspaperman and labor activist in his early thirties, the elder Maraniss was in the early 1950s named as a communist by an informant. At that turbulent and unsettling turning of American history, Elliott Maraniss was fired from his job on a Detroit daily paper and then called before a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in Detroit. “He was not falsely accused of being a communist because, for a time, he was one,” writes David Maraniss. “But didn’t being a citizen of this country give him the freedom to affiliate with the politics of his choosing and to write and speak his mind, as long as he didn’t betray his country as a foreign agent? Wasn’t there an essential radical tradition in America that was propelled by a desire not to destroy but to realize something better and fairer? Was he un-American? What does that even mean? By whose standard? Un-American compared to whom and to what?”

And so it was filed away, for more than six decades.

David Maraniss shares the statement in A Good American Family. It is, I would submit, an expression of patriotic thinking that carries particular resonance on a July Fourth that falls in another turbulent and unsettling time. Writing as an honorably discharged World War II U.S. Army captain, a veteran newspaperman and “a loyal, law-abiding citizen of the United States,” the elder Maraniss explained, “I was taught as a child and in school that the highest responsibility of citizenship is to defend the principles of the U.S. Constitution and to do my part in securing for the American people the blessings of peace, economic well-being, and freedom. I have tried to do just that to the very best of my ability.”


Elliott Maraniss expressed his belief that “nobody has the right to question my Americanism—least of all a committee which itself has been called subversive, un-American and anti-labor by the (Congress of Industrial Organizations), of which I am a member, by President Roosevelt and by responsible organizations representing many millions of Americans. I view this committee’s attempt to muzzle me and drive me off my job as a direct attack on freedom of the press and the right of newspapermen to participate freely in the political life of the country without fear of reprisal.”


With the righteous indignation of an American doing battle on behalf of the truest patriotism, he declared, “This committee reflects no credit on American institutions or ideas. Its attempt to enforce conformity of political or economic thought is a long step toward dictatorship that holds the greatest danger to the entire American people. In this country we have never acquiesced in the proposition that persons could be punished for their beliefs.”


It falls to each generation to confirm the truth of that last line. In doing so, we would do well to commit to memory a few lines from the able wordsmith, who defended the First Amendment when others were prepared to compromise.

“The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights are not simply musty documents in a library. They have meaning only if they are used,” wrote Elliott Maraniss. “To betray and subvert the Bill of Rights is the most un-American act any man or committee can do: for that document was brought into being and maintained throughout our history by men who gave their lives and their blood.”

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