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July 07, 2008

Patriotism, Continued

This Fourth of July seems to have generated a good deal of discussion about patriotism. Over at The Corner, there is an interesting distillation of two contrasting views of American patriotism. The first - one more akin to American exceptionalism - is outlined by Mark Hemingway in response to a post by Matthew Yglesias:

... is there anything unique about America and its founding that Yglesias would argue is superior to the rest of the world and worth celebrating? I have always thought that one of the great things about this country is that, though its citizens may disagree on politics, everybody agreed that the way freedom was inherent in America's founding onward was special and unprecedented in human history. That there wasn't "something arbitrary" about being American, but rather fortuitous. That's why frequently the most patriotic people you encounter are immigrants. Yglesias's crudely explaining the undercurrents of American patriotism as cosmopolitan liberals dismissive of American uniqueness vs. conservatives too parochial to understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism doesn't do anybody any favors.

More to the point, Yglesias claims to be extolling the virtues of liberals, but I think the the vast majority of liberals in America would reject this view outright. Liberals may think America isn't nearly as sensitive to the concerns of the world as they ought to be and may be currently unhappy with their government, but the vast majority still recognize that America is superior to other countries in fundamental ways and are correspondingly patriotic.

The cheap hit on American exceptionalism has always been that it inevitably leads to a 'my country, right or wrong' mentality. This ignores the possibility that one might love one's country deeply enough to want to correct its shortcomings; that it might be America's dogged (and sometimes impractical) determination to live up to her ideals which inspires the devotion of her citizens:

I love my country not because she is perfect, but because she wants so badly to be. I even love her faults, even the kind of obsessive navel gazing angst that mistakes fallible humans and imperfect realization of our ideals for evidence of pervasive moral rot and in so doing, makes conscience the scourge that would make moral cowards of us all...

...America is not a destination but a journey and in loving her, we must not become so firmly fixed upon the goal that we lose heart when we stumble a time or two upon the road. For stumble we will. After all, we are but human; all too imperfect clay with which to form the more perfect union our founding fathers envisioned.

Grim explains this "fighting faith" well:

... George Washington had many virtues, and was surely correct in his undertakings, but one thing he cannot claim is to have lived as a patriot of his king and country. We do not esteem him less for that. If a nation sets aside the natural rights of mankind, it becomes a tyranny, and not patriotism but separation or destruction is the duty of its citizens. This view is the birthright of Americans, and it is a longstanding complaint of mine against our hard left that they will not accept it. If America is as bad as they so often claim, they have duties beyond mere complaint. If she is evil, fight her. If she is not, fight for her.

Those who whine on the sidelines are the ones I detest. Even William Ayers at least fought, in his way. I wish he had been hanged for it, but I respect him ten times as much as I do any number of beardless men I have met who did nothing but snark about 'America's sins,' as if they too had lived two hundred years, and could judge her as a peer. At least Ayers had courage enough to fight as well as talk, and that redeems him somewhat.

America is a fighting faith. Beinart gets that right:

So is wearing the flag pin good or bad? It is both; it all depends on where and why. If you're going to a Young Americans for Freedom meeting, where people think patriotism means "my country right or wrong," leave it at home and tell them about Frederick Douglass, who wouldn't celebrate the Fourth of July while his fellow Americans were in bondage. And if you're going to a meeting of the cultural-studies department at Left-Wing U., where patriotism often means "my country wrong and wronger," slap it on, and tell them about Mike Christian, who lay half-dead in a North Vietnamese jail, stitching an American flag.

With that, I have no argument at all. A true patriot must love his country enough to want to leave it to his sons as he got it from his fathers, pure, with its ideals as well as its physical attributes intact. If anything, he should wish to perfect it, extend it, and make it ever purer.

What I like best about his formulation is that it puts the actor in an eternal fight for his nation. When he goes here, he should fight this way for her; when he goes there, fight for her that way.

That's the thing, the real thing. It is the love that stands off the world.

Ramesh Ponnoru counters:

Are you maintaining that to be an American patriot you have to believe that the U.S. is superior to all other countries? I loved my mother not because I truly believed that she was in some objective sense "the greatest mother in the world"—although I think I may have gotten her a coffee mug to that effect—but because she was mine. Can't we love our country the same way?

That is a different kind of love, and it is a part of patriotism. But to me it is more akin to loyalty: a reflexive, unthinking kind of love. As Marc explains so well, that kind of feeling resembles nationalism more than anything else.

If your country is attacked, it may be all you need. In an increasingly borderless world where both threats and morality are not always clearly defined, I'm not sure it suffices.

What do you think?

Posted by Cassandra at July 7, 2008 06:38 AM

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Is this radioactive? No comments from anyone?

I got a lot to say, but it will have to wait until later.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at July 7, 2008 03:19 PM

I dunno, Juan.

I thought it juas kind of a *thoughtful* post too. But juat do I know? I'm just a blonde bombshell juith false eyelashes and a silly accent.

Posted by: Charo at July 7, 2008 03:28 PM

Well Charo! Who loves ya', baby?

Goochie, goochie, goo to you too.
And ahh, like ahh, all that...

Posted by: Telly Savalas at July 7, 2008 05:01 PM

The question, I guess, hinges on whether you believe America is your country. Indeed, the question arises for everyone. Is it your place, where you can feel safe, where it is 'home'; where everybody knows your name, so to paraphrase Cheers.

If it is, then you can be a patriot and defend it with all its current shortcomings. If it is not, then why bother?

Posted by: Gregory at July 7, 2008 08:44 PM

Aye, Telly.
Jou like me.

Jou really *like* me.

Posted by: Charo at July 7, 2008 09:24 PM