Strangely enough, I have long been, though I’ve had my Howard Zinn moments of feeling like the whole thing is a big fat lie, still am, a wide-eyed fan of the “American experiment,” so-called, I think because to me, as long as I was even aware of such a thing, dissent has been an essential element of that fondness. That’s my parents’ influence. They were American dreamers and they were practiced complainers.
I loved saying the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school every morning as much as or maybe even because of how I loved how it felt, or what it meant, to stay silent for the “under God” part. Dissent is integral to my feeling of loyalty, or love?, for this nation. The first speech I ever made, in high school public speaking class, was about Thoreau and civil disobedience, delivered standing in front of a large copy of the Declaration of Independence because the assignment was to use a visual aid. I have a searing memory of some kid snickering at one of my more sanctimonious lines. I blushed, because I was embarrassed and because I was in that moment flushed with a sense of the task.
I love the Puritans. I shouldn’t. I want to cry when I read about Edward Preston and Edward Mitchell, convicted in 1642 by the Plymouth Colony of “sodomitical sin,” the first American colonists persecuted for being queer. They got off easy, whipped; the penalty on the books was death.
Still, I love the Puritans, whose sole aim was to make a world exactly like they were absolutely convinced it should be. They knew that if they got it right, that if everyone would just do it the RIGHT WAY, God would favor them and their community would survive and thrive. They KNEW it. (I think anyone who’s been married can identify with that conviction. And also knows that it’s just not a way to run a household.)
Dissent is certain and essential. The Puritans’ stranglehold eventually gave way, they relented, had to, as more and more people with different and just as intractable views arrived. It happens.
Incidentally, do you know who the Puritans’ descendants are? Unitarian Universalists, the most liberal people you could imagine, who welcome congregants of all traditions or no tradition, who encourage, maybe even fetishize, dissent. I’ve never met people more certain of how to live, how to live together in community. Their example shows me that there was some kernel of rightness from the beginning, and that it takes a long time to get there.