If Britain had defeated its colonies in the war for American Independence, we’d all be speaking English today. More soberly, the word “patriot” would have a very different historical connotation. In revolutionary-era colonial America, that word was up for grabs, to be applied to the side that eventually won. At the time, “Whigs” were rebels, and traitors to the crown, while “Tories” were loyalists to the King; hence, British patriots.
In 21st century America, the word “patriot” has been co-opted by a certain kind of nationalist – the kind that, ironically, is most apt to support our modern equivalent of the King, regardless of what action he, she, or it purposes (especially wars of choice). The images of our “Founding Fathers” – rebels – have now been invoked and assumed by those who are the most pro-authoritarian among us.
Words are shifty, especially when freighted with emotion. Take the word “anti-union,” for example.
I’ve been called “anti-union” for fighting to make one of my unions – Actors Equity – more democratic. In the months to come, as it becomes apparent just how much I’m willing to risk to make that happen, I expect to hear the epithet a few more times.
I was raised by blue-collar parents who taught me that “every good thing that ever happened for the worker happened because of a union.” I believe that. I also believe that, at the heart of a successful union, is democracy and fair representation. Without those things, a union is just another form of top-down, heavy-handed management.
There is a type of person, though, who inevitably considers him or herself a leftist – a liberal on all counts – who would never dream of saying “My country, right or wrong,” but is perfectly comfortable with the concept of “My union, right or wrong.” For this kind of person, the idea of a union is so inviolate, so sacred, that even when confronted with the worst kind of behavior in an organization that bears that name, he or she cannot see it for what it is.
I won’t rehash the details of LA’s infamous AEA referendum vote, or the union’s resounding loss (which they simply ignored), but I will share my favorite response AEA Tories have made to my criticism of it. When I pointed out to my loyalist friends how undemocratic Equity’s actions were, several responded “It was only an advisory vote,” as if the King stating beforehand that He would poll His subjects, then do whatever He so chose, somehow made it better. As good liberals, these friends deplore the American conservative party’s attempts to disenfranchise voters, but, hey, this is a union we’re talking about, so, it’s all good.
It’s not all good. Our union, AEA, has a rot inside. Just as a cancer is of the body, but inimical to it, there is that within the AEA body which is inimical to the very idea – the true, democratic idea – of a union. There are those of us who are willing to let that rot fester and sicken our union, and those who would root it out; cut and cleave for love of the greater whole. Who is truly anti-union?
At the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin famously said “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Those are the words of a Whig, a rebel, who did not know what the future held. Now, he is universally counted among America’s greatest patriots.
It remains to be seen how history will view our battle to right the wrongs committed by AEA. In fact, to be honest, I think it’s just getting started. That said, it will be over one day, and our community’s members will decide who the patriots and the traitors were.
After our country won its independence, many of the King’s loyalists relocated to Canada rather than face the opprobrium of their fellow Americans. I’d like to believe our theatrical community will never be so divided. It will be an odd feeling for our Tories, though, I think, after the battle is won, when the union is whole again, to know that they were on the wrong side of history.
Los Angeles, California