Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dispatches from The Culture Wars: Patriotism, Conservative and Liberal


Posted on: January 26, 2009 9:02 AM, by Ed Brayton
Ed Brayton is a journalist, commentator and speaker. He is the co-founder and president of Michigan Citizens for Science and co-founder of The Panda's Thumb. He has written for such publications as The Bard, Skeptic and Reports of the National Center for Science Education, spoken in front of many organizations and conferences, and appeared on nationally syndicated radio shows and on C-SPAN. Ed is also a Fellow with the Center for Independent Media and the host of Declaring Independence, a one hour weekly political talk show on WPRR in Grand Rapids, Michigan.(static)

Watching Obama's inaugural address reminded me of an essay written by Peter Beinart in Time magazine last summer about conservative and liberal conceptions of patriotism. I thought he really nailed the key difference in how right and left tend to think about patriotism. For far too many on the right, patriotism is about mere symbols, about having a flag pin on your lapel and getting weepy eyed when the national anthem plays.

This is why, for example, one of the primary Republican attacks on Michael Dukakis in 1988 was that he vetoed a bill requiring teachers to lead students in saying the pledge of allegiance. For much of the right, patriotism is mostly about ostentatious displays of emotionalism and loyalty - and the ability to exploit such emotionalism for political gain. But Obama presented a very different version of patriotism in his inaugural speech.

I thought Beinart really captured this distinction well:

On the surface, defining patriotism is simple. It is love and devotion to country. The questions are why we love it and how we express our devotion. That's where the arguments begin.

The conservative answer is implicit in the title of John McCain's 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers. Why should we love America? In part, at least, because our forefathers did. Think about the lyrics to America ("My Country, 'Tis of Thee"): "Land where my fathers died,/ Land of the Pilgrims' pride." Most liberals don't consider those the best lines of the song. What about the Americans whose fathers died somewhere else? What about all the nasty stuff the Pilgrims did? But conservatives generally want to conserve, and that requires a reverence for the past. What McCain's title implies is that patriotism isn't a choice; it's an inheritance. Being born into a nation is like being born into a religion or a family. You may be called on to reaffirm the commitment as you reach adulthood--as McCain did by joining the military--but it is impressed upon you early on, by those who have come before.

That's why conservatives tend to believe that loving America today requires loving its past. Conservatives often fret about "politically correct" education, which forces America's students to dwell on its past sins. They're forever writing books like America: The Last Best Hope (by William J. Bennett) and America: A Patriotic Primer (by Lynne Cheney), which teach children that historically the U.S. was a pretty nifty place. These books are based on the belief that our national forefathers are a bit like our actual mothers and fathers: if we dishonor them, we dishonor ourselves. That's why conservatives got so upset when Michelle Obama said that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" (a comment she says was misinterpreted). In the eyes of conservatives, those comments suggested a lack of gratitude toward the nation that--as they saw it--has given her and the rest of us so much.

Conservatives know America isn't perfect, of course. But they grade on a curve. Partly that's because they generally take a dimmer view of human nature than do their counterparts on the left. When evaluating America, they're more likely to remember that for most of human history, tyranny has been the norm. By that standard, America looks pretty good. Conservatives worry that if Americans don't appreciate--and celebrate--their nation's past accomplishments, they'll assume the country can be easily and dramatically improved. And they'll end up making things worse. But if conservatives believe that America is, comparatively, a great country, they also believe that comparing America with other countries is beside the point. It's like your family: it doesn't matter whether it's objectively better than someone else's. You love it because it is yours...

If conservatives tend to see patriotism as an inheritance from a glorious past, liberals often see it as the promise of a future that redeems the past. Consider Obama's original answer about the flag pin: "I won't wear that pin on my chest," he said last fall. "Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism." Will make this country great? It wasn't great in the past? It's not great as it is?

The liberal answer is, Not great enough. For liberals, America is less a common culture than a set of ideals about democracy, equality and the rule of law. American history is a chronicle of the distance between those ideals and reality. And American patriotism is the struggle to narrow the gap. Thus, patriotism isn't about honoring and replicating the past; it's about surpassing it.

If Reagan best evoked conservative patriotism, many liberals still identify their brand with John F. Kennedy, a leader forever associated with unfulfilled promise. If Reagan conjured the past, Kennedy downplayed it, urging Americans to instead grab hold of the future. He liked to cite Goethe, who "tells us in his greatest poem that Faust lost the liberty of his soul when he said to the passing moment, 'Stay, thou art so fair.'" Americans risked a similar fate, Kennedy warned, "if we pause for the passing moment, if we rest on our achievements, if we resist the pace of progress ... Those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future."

Obama's political persona is also deeply bound up with youth, promise and liberation from the constraints of the past. In McCain's life, patriotism is about replicating and honoring what came before: the son and grandson of admirals becomes a war hero. In Obama's, patriotism is about escaping what came before: the grandson of an African farmer becomes the embodiment of the American Dream. If McCain's identity has been shaped largely by inherited tradition, Obama's is largely the result of personal invention, a deeply American concept. Obama chose a profession, a city, a religious identity, even a racial one, mostly on his own. His first book is called not Faith of My Fathers--how could it be, since in so many ways he has created his own faith?--but Dreams from My Father, since Obama imagined a father he never knew and from those dreams constructed a life. If some conservatives worry that America's recent immigration wave is fracturing the nation, Obama represents the liberal faith that assimilation is relatively easy and that newcomers don't divide America; they improve it.

Obama's election would, like Kennedy's, represent a triumph over past prejudice. The election of an African American, like the election of a Catholic, would be a sign that America is--as Michelle Obama implied--a different and better nation than it was before, one more worthy of the patriotism of all its citizens. Liberals are more comfortable thinking about America that way: as a nation that must earn its citizens' devotion by making good on its ideals. For conservatives, the devotion must come first; politics is secondary. But for liberals, patriotic devotion without political struggle is often empty. Liberals think lapel pins are fine if they inspire Americans to struggle to realize the nation's promise. But they worry that those symbols can become--especially when wielded by people in power--substitutes for that struggle and thus emblems of hypocrisy and complacency.

Conservatives tend to be particularly moved by stories of Americans showing extraordinary devotion to our patriotic symbols. McCain tells an especially powerful one about a fellow prisoner in North Vietnam named Mike Christian, who stitched a U.S. flag on the inside of his shirt and was brutally beaten by his captors in response but immediately began stitching it again, even with his ribs broken and eyes swollen nearly shut. Of course, any sane liberal would find that story stirring as well. But liberals more often lionize people who display patriotism by calling America on the carpet for violating its highest ideals. For liberals more than for conservatives, there is something quintessentially patriotic about Frederick Douglass's famous 1852 oration, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?," in which the great African-American abolitionist refused to celebrate the anniversary of America's founding, telling a Rochester, N.Y., crowd that "above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them."

On this issue, I am firmly with the left. My allegiance is not to a nation and much less to a flag, but to a set of principles. When my country supports those principles, I support my country; when it fails to do so, I do not support it. America can only be great if America is good, if our actions are in line with the ideals we so loudly proclaim. It is a cliche, but it remains true that actions speak far louder than words.

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