What place does patriotism have in spreading solar power around America?
It’s a fair question given that the name of this project is The Solar Patriot: A Citizen’s Guide to Helping America Win Clean Energy Independence.
I suspect that few traditional supporters of solar power, many of whom come from the environmental movement or from the left in general, would have any problems with the subtitle. Everybody likes energy independence, especially if it’s clean.
And many conservatives probably have no problem with patriotism, though they might be surprised to see it connected to solar power (I hope they’ll like it).
But people on the left might ask: why patriotism?
Samuel Johnson famously quipped that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” And many liberals and progressives would probably agree that you don’t need to fly Old Glory to spread solar power.
Why not just appeal to Saving the Earth? Or saving the human race? Or creating green jobs?
I think it’s fair to answer these questions. And I’m going to enlist the help of progressive movements in American history to show why, if you want solar power to spread more quickly, you should stop worrying and learn to love patriotism.
Who Owns Patriotism?
If you fly the American flag, does that mean you’re saying “My Country Right or Wrong”? Or can it also mean that you love the place where you live so much that you want to help make it better?
“Ultimately, the flag is a challenge,” writes Woden Teachout, a college professor and author who has written elsewhere on rejuvenating local democracy.
The flag reminds us that the American Revolution remains unfinished.
The democratic vision of liberty and justice for all remains the country’s promise, not its reality. The flag reveals this gap. In the hands of many Americans before us, it has insisted that we reexamine our national path and has called on the power of patriotism to move our country closer, step by step, to what we hope it can be.
In her entertaining and informative book Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism, Teachout looks at key moments in American history when the flag, and the patriotism it represents, was associated with either the best of America or our nation’s darker impulses.
At the beginning, whether the first flag was sewn by Betsy Ross or not, it was patriotic sailors on the waterfront of Boston who most proudly flew the Stars and Stripes. Captured American sailors even sewed their own flags from red and blue scraps of clothing when held prisoner by the British.
In the War of 1812, Old Glory became a battle standard, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Continuing in all future American wars from the Mexican War to Vietnam, government and war supporters pulled out the flag to build support for the war effort and silence opposition.
Yet, in the Civil War, as the war went on and sentiment grew in favor of abolishing slavery, ordinary Northerners started to give Old Glory a larger meaning than just preserving the Union. They saw it as the symbol of emancipation, “the flag that makes you free,” as the words to the old song go.
A century later, African-American civil rights activists were inspired to replace protest signs with American flags on their marches in Mississippi and other southern states. When photos of the flag trod underfoot by local police breaking up demonstrations in Jackson and other cities appeared in northern newspapers, it helped connect the civil rights movement to the mainstream of American history. This built massive support for the southern marchers around the country, helping lead to the movement’s ultimate victory.
But there’s a more nationalist history of the flag as well. Groups from anti-Irish rioters in Philadelphia in the 1840s to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s wrapped themselves in the flag to try to make their brand of racial bias more acceptable. Ultimately, Americans rejected this vision of patriotism to embrace a vision of a multiethnic nation where all citizens should have a fair deal.
The most recent time the flag really came out in force for ordinary Americans was after 9/11. This flag of rebirth spread from fire trucks at Ground Zero to lapel pins of Republican members of Congress. Later, President Obama appealed to Old Glory in a call for Americans to display their patriotism in uniting to bring back the economy after the Great Recession of 2008.
The Only Thing that Can Unite All Americans
Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 that “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”
And in that sense, I believe that if America starts to lead the world on solar power, then other nations will follow.
America has been the leader on many accomplishments that have brought great benefit to the people across the globe. After the American Revolution, we became the modern world’s first republic and established the principle of equal rights for all. Since then, we’ve led the world in technology from mass producing consumer products to landing a man on the Moon.
The first modern solar panel was made in America in the 1950s. We led the world in solar technology through the 1970s. But unfortunately, since then, America has lagged behind the rest of the world in adopting solar power. Now, when it comes to solar, we’re not number one — China is.
America can take back our world leadership on solar. And I believe that liberals and conservatives need to band together to make it happen. Patriotism may be the only thing that can help people on the left and right bridge the massive divides that separate us today.
Teachout believes that the right kind of patriotism can build that bridge, that it can “create a shared political culture of liberty and justice. In a world as diverse and multifaceted as outs — and as in need of renewal — it is, perhaps the only thing that can.”
So, in the past, we’ve heard that Americans need more solar to do our part to help save the earth. In support, we’ve heard Gandhi quoted: “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Maybe now it’s time to bring solar back home. Yes, it will help the earth. And yes, Gandhi was right.
But Americans are more likely to be inspired to fight for clean energy if solar panels are raised under not under the global peace flag but under Old Glory.
Solar companies understand the pull of patriotism. Just look at some of their names. Buffalo, NY is home to both Freedom Solar (a company I’ve worked with) and Solar Liberty. In addition, at least a couple companies are called Patriot Solar, including one in Albion, MI and another in Lowell, MA. There’s also a Patriot Energy Solutions in Bay Shore, NY.
Solar advocates would do well to follow the example of these companies.
And I’m sure Dr. Johnson would agree. After all, he wasn’t against patriotism (though he was against the American Revolution — but we shouldn’t hold that against him now). Johnson was against unscrupulous people using patriotism as a cover for selfish actions. Elsewhere, he defined a real patriot:
A patriot is he whose public conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who…has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.
Anyone who looks at America’s energy picture today can see that clean, domestic solar power is in our national interest. And if you love your country, how could you not love solar?
Photo: HarshLight via Flickr Creative Commons.
— Erik Curren, the Solar Patriot