Peter Beinart, one of the more thoughtful men of the left, has a sterling piece in Time Magazine that I’m surprised hasn’t gotten a little more play among blogs.
It’s a piece about patriotism – how liberals and conservatives view the word and the concept and how patriotism is playing out in the presidential race. Beinart suffuses his piece with an obvious love of country which makes the words ring all the more real and true.
It’s always hard to be analytical about an emotional subject – perhaps even more so when trying to look dispassionately at patriotism. And because patriotism is, in many ways, wrapped up in our own personal identity, if we have difficulty recognizing how someone might define the concept, we are more than likely to reject that individual’s claim to being a patriot. Instead, we see hypocrisy or dark forebodings of authoritarianism or super-nationalism.
Beinart successfully traverses this emotional minefield and emerges with a reasoned discourse on the differences between how liberals and conservatives define patriotism. He then ties it neatly into presidential race by demonstrating how Obama’s and McCain’s patriotism may be different but still represents two sides of the same coin – love and devotion to the United States.
I found the entire exercise intellectually and emotionally satisfying – especially since I took a stab at the same subject matter last October and came up with what I thought at the time was one of the better things I had written on this site. Re-reading it, I see how close Beinart’s thinking is to my own views on patriotism (except for a more expansive view regarding American exceptionalism on my part). But Beinart goes several steps further in his analysis to include the dangers inherent in both definitions of patriotism. At bottom, Beinart has successfully shown how both the right and left understanding of patriotism is valid and a necessary complement to the other.
I hold out little hope that many readers (at least those who leave comments) on this site or most sites on the internet would grant Mr. Beinart the legitimacy of his thesis. The patriotism issue is just too emotionally charged and too closely identified with the war for most of us to let go of our petty vindictiveness and grant the opposition the one thing both sides crave the most; recognition that they are acting with the best interests of the United States uppermost in their hearts and minds.
I’m not saying everyone should abandon political combat and move into some loathsome kind of Obama-led paradise where everybody agrees about everything and our great national debates on the war, the energy crisis, the budget, or social issues would suddenly be stilled as we all recognize the error of our ways and come together to hold hands around the great American campfire. That sickening kind of political heaven might be attractive to the ignorant but idealistic young and a segment of the left that sees opposition to its policies the same way the Catholic Church viewed Martin Luther.
But it is not for me. I will continue to battle the left with anger at times but also humor, sarcasm, and satire – hopefully vouchsafing the genuineness of their beliefs and yes, their patriotism in opposing me.
For Beinart, patriotism on the right can be too simple:
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.
I would take issue with Mr. Beinart only in his belief that “Conservatives often fret about “politically correct” education, which forces America’s students to dwell on its past sins.” That’s only half of it. What conservatives object to is dwelling on America’s past sins at the exclusion and in lieu of telling our national story.
I confess to being a little out of the loop regarding the content of “social studies” textbooks but a few short years ago, there was too much emphasis on the struggles of oppressed minorities to rise above the bigotry, sexism, and hatred in American society to reach for the promise that America offered and not enough on the remarkable, even miraculous nature of our origin.
Washington and Jefferson especially received short shrift in the textbooks I examined. How can anyone possibly know America without examining Washington as closely as we might examine Martin Luther King? Or celebrate Jefferson as much as Elizabeth Cady Stanton? The conservative critique of education today decries not just the “politically correct” interpretation of American history but the underlying message being taught; that what those dead white European males did in first fighting for independence and then cementing our freedoms and rights in the Constitution isn’t as vital or important to history as the struggle for civil rights or women’s rights. To say that this is a back-asswards way to teach history is an understatement.
But Beinart nails it when he talks about conservative’s love of the past and how we see patriotism as something of our patrimony; a concept inculcated by parents and, increasingly less so, the public schools. And he is spot on when he ascribes part of this to our rather dim view of human nature.
The difference between liberal and conservative on this point is profound and has been at the bottom of every political argument in our history. It goes back to the debate over the Constitution – between those who possessed what historian Page Smith referred to as a “classical Christian conscience” and those who believed in the values and precepts of the enlightenment.
Smith believed that the Constitution is infused with elements of both but that the classical Christain conscience dominates. It is the belief that man is inherently evil and will do mischief to his fellow man unless restrained by law and governance. (Smith ascribed a belief in original sin and man’s corruptibility as prerequisites for the classical Christian conscience.) Most of the Federalists ended up in this camp if only because they saw a need to restrain the passions of the common man and keep a strong hand on the tiller of state.
The Jeffersonians had a much more expansive and benign view of human nature. They believed in the perfectibility of man and, like true children of the enlightenment, saw man as basically good but error prone. By applying rational and reasoned concepts to government, Jeffersonians believed man was perfectly capable of governing himself as long as sensible laws were enacted to govern his passions.
One can immediately see the basics of the liberal-conservative schism in this debate over the shape of our constitution. And if you were to extrapolate a bit, you can even see how two definitions of patriotism could emerge from the competing philosophies. In Beinart’s piece, he ties the conservative view of respect for the past – defining Reagan as a magician who could summon feelings of past American greatness – with McCain’s ambitions:
McCain is a little rougher around the edges. Unlike Reagan, who during the Second World War only played soldiers on the big screen, McCain has actually seen combat. And as it did Bob Dole, the experience has made him a little more ironic and a little less sappy. (Dole tried to play the Reagan role in 1996, asking Americans in his convention acceptance speech to “let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth,” but he couldn’t pull it off.) But if McCain isn’t Reagan, he still exemplifies many of conservative patriotism’s key themes. He followed in his forefathers’ footsteps; he put aside his hell-raising youth and learned to obey. He served his country in Vietnam, an unpopular war whose veterans we honor not because their service necessarily made the world a better place but simply because they are ours.
On one key issue, though—immigration—McCain’s view of patriotism differs from that of many on the right. Conservatives tend to believe that while Americans are bound together by the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, they are also bound together by a set of inherited traditions that immigrants must be encouraged—even required—to adopt. And they fret that if newcomers don’t assimilate into that common culture, they won’t be truly patriotic. McCain rarely discusses the dangers of mass immigration, but for many conservatives, the fact that some immigrants eat vindaloo or bok choy rather than turkey on Thanksgiving isn’t charming; it’s worrisome. They see multiculturalism as the celebration of various ethnic cultures at our national culture’s expense. And when that celebration is linked to the claim that America’s national traditions are racist—as it sometimes is on college campuses—conservatives begin to suspect that multiculturalism is leading to outright disloyalty. That’s why conservative talk radio and Fox News went berserk a couple of years back when some immigrant activists paraded through America’s cities waving Mexican flags. It confirmed their deepest fear: that if you let people retain their native tongue and let them spurn American culture for the culture of their native land, they will remain politically loyal to their native land as well.
A slight correction to Beinart’s description of the Mexican flag dustup. Of course it wasn’t because Mexican’s were only carrying Mexican flags. It was that they had elevated their own flag above the American flag – something I challenge Mr. Beinart to find in a St. Paddy’s day parade. Beyond that, the signage accompanying the flags were not mentioned by Mr. Beinart – signs clearly stating the belief that California and the southwestern United States was Mexican territory and that someday it would revert back. Reconquista
may be a joke to liberals and the open borders crowd but the non-assimilation of tens of millions of Mexicans – people who are actively resisting the pull of the melting pot – is not funny.
But taking Beinart’s thesis on McCain’s appeal to patriotism, I believe he has accurately identified why there is an attraction to the Arizona senator by many conservatives. No, McCain is not a down the line man of the right. But his life story – his values, his upbringing, and his otherwordly courage in a life and death situation that he endured for 5 years resonate powerfully with many whose faith in America finds voice in men like McCain. He is an authentic American hero. And regardless of how one might feel about his immigration policies or other problematic political positions he has taken, there is that link with the past – that McCain is just the latest in a long line of heroes who sacrificed so much for this country.
So why can’t the left see it “our” way and not be so harsh and judgemental when it comes to the sins of our past? This is the way I described the difference between liberals and conservatives regarding patriotism last October:
I think it is apparent that some on the right love America in a different way than some on the left. Think of the right’s love of country as that of a young man for a hot young woman. The passion of such love brooks no criticism and in their eyes, the woman can do nothing wrong. They place the woman on a pedestal and fail to see any flaws in her beauty, only perfection.
On the other hand, love of country by many liberals is more intellectualized – perhaps the kind of love we might feel for a wife of many years. The white hot passion may be gone and her flaws might drive you up a wall at times. And it is difficult not to dwell on her imperfections But there is still a deep, abiding affection that allows you to love her despite the many blemishes and defects they see.
It isn’t that most on the left love America any less than those on the right. They simply see a different entity – a tainted but beloved object that has gotten better.
And here’s Beinart on how the left defines patriotism:
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.
One of the major reasons I love history is that America is, at bottom, the most schizophrenic nation imaginable. As long ago as 1765 in the midst of the Stamp Act crisis, wise old Samuel Johnson, the English man of letters who compiled the first English language dictionary, wrote to a friend “Why is it we hear the loudest yelps for freedom from the drivers of Negro slaves?”
Johnson nailed the historical dichotomy that continues to this day. We are nation in love with peace who have fought uncounted wars and battles just since the end of World War II. We are a nation with a Statue of Liberty who welcomes immigrants with the stirring words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, ...” who then turns around and puts up signs “No Irish need apply” or “English only spoken here.”
What many see as hypocrisy – including much of the left – I see as a profound disconnect from reality. It’s only hypocrisy if you don’t really believe what you’re saying. The amazing thing is we Americans believe with all our hearts in peace and in welcoming immigrants (perhaps most amazing of all, we believe that “all men are created equal” in spite of mountains of evidence that we have never practiced it) despite the actions of our government which can be quite bellicose at times as well as America possessing a long tradition of nativism.
So I can understand the left’s concept of feeling a patriotic duty to make America live up to her best ideals. I can appreciate where that notion comes from and applaud the effort – except for when the left demonstrates a lousy sense of timing and a gross mischaracterization of conservative beliefs:
From my piece:
Having said this, I should point out that the insufferable way in which the left seeks to claim some kind of moral superiority for their view of patriotism by belittling and demonizing the way the right expresses their love of country is unconscionable. There are those on the right who accuse the left of lacking in patriotism – something I have abhorred in the past and will continue to do so. Many conservatives defend dissent even in time of war as a patriotic exercise especially those who have their own beef with the way the war is being run. But I have yet to see anyone on the left take a fellow liberal to task for questioning the methods by which conservative choose to express their love of country.
Indeed, the very idea of a heartfelt expression or outward manifestation of patriotism smacks of “nationalism” to these liberals. And that perhaps, is the real divide between conservatives and liberals when it comes to a definitional framework regarding the use of the word “patriotism.”
Beinart thinks “nationalism” is a grievous sin as well:
By defining Americanism too narrowly and backwardly, conservative patriotism risks becoming clubby. And by celebrating America too unabashedly—without sufficient regard for America’s sins—it risks degenerating from patriotism into nationalism, a self-righteous, chest-thumping ideology that celebrates America at the expense of the rest of the world.
Does nationalism celebrate America “at the expense” of other nations? Or are those feelings of unease by the left the manifestation of something more basic?
It should go without saying that liberals despise the concept of nationalism. In this, they are not entirely off base. Most of the evils of the 20th century can be traced to nationalistic impulses in Germany, Japan, the old Soviet Union (Despite their “all men are brothers” rhetoric, the Soviets never had any intention of allowing independent communist states. Their expressed desire was that the revolution be controlled by Moscow.), and the early 20th century saw nationalist movements destabilizing the Austria-Hungarian empire as well as super-nationalistic sentiment in Europe leading the continent to war.
But whether deliberately or not, the left confuses that virulent kind of nationalism with the simple expressions of patriotism most Americans see as harmless and uplifting. Yes there are those on the right who have a “my country right or wrong” attitude where a mindless form of nationalism has taken over and a creeping authoritarianism is expressed by a slavish devotion to a man like Bush. There are also aspects of militarism at large in these quarters where the military can do no wrong and any criticism of the armed forces is tantamount to treason.
I am not denying any of this. I am simply saying that this is a small minority of Americans (whose numbers are blown all of out proportion thanks to the internet). For the left to paint all conservatives and all Americans who express their love of country in a more demonstrable fashion than liberals as xenophobes and simple minded, brainwashed automatons is outrageously arrogant. It stinks of class warfare as much as it animates any criticism for the right’s overly nationalistic impulses. According to many on the left, that kind of patriotic display is reserved for the rubes in flyover country and can safely be ridiculed as the mouthings of ignorant, bible reading, goober chewing yahoos who are too stupid to “vote their own interest” we are told after every election won by a conservative.
What Beinart and other liberals describe as “nationalism” is, I am convinced, nothing more than feelings of discomfort with the more emotional, outward displays of patriotism you often find in Middle America. As Beinart and I agree that the left intellectualizes their patriotism, it stands to reason that grown men weeping at the passing of the flag or even the wearing of a flag pin might cause those on the left to be reminded of all the sins America has committed and that such outward displays are stupid, foolish, and for some liberals, cynically hypocritical.
In some ways, this is an elitist, coastal view of America that many on the left are guilty of and the reason they have continuously lost national elections with two exceptions since 1968.
There is, in fact, nothing wrong with believing America is a different place, a special place compared to other nations. Does that mean loving America “at the expense” of other nations? Damn straight. And the intellectual basis for that feeling can be found in American exceptionalism.
Again, my words:
The idea of American Exceptionalism has taken a beating in recent years because of this overt fear on the part of the left that believing America to be special smacks of the kind of nationalism that had Europe marching off to war in 1914 or Germans goose stepping under the Brandenburg Gate in 1939. Nothing could be further from the truth. You don’t have to read Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky to rid yourself of the notion “my country right or wrong.” And if that is the only education you allow yourself about America and her past, I pity you. Nor do you need any special knowledge vouchsafed those lucky lefties who are able to see through Bushitler’s lies in order to oppose the President on many issues. Unless you are a blind, mindless partisan, such wisdom comes from picking up the daily newspaper and reading it every once and a while.
In short, the privileged moral position the left seeks to occupy on the question of patriotism is an arrogant lie – a belief that those who are more nationalistic in their expressing love of country are not only wrong but dangerous. I hate to disabuse my lefty friends of this notion that patriotism can only be defined as the last refuge of scoundrels but the kind of nationalism expressed by most on the right is in fact healthy and sincere form of patriotism. There is not a whiff of authoritarianism or militarism except in the fevered minds and paranoid imaginings of those who either don’t understand the right’s patriotism or refuse to recognize it as genuine.
Tough words but I believe I speak for many conservatives in uttering them. Beinart may be able to define the differences in patriotic sentiment between liberals and conservatives but many of his friends on the left see only unsophisticated “chest thumping” as manifestations of conservative patriotism while ignoring the feelings of good, decent, people who only understand that they are grateful for having been born in a country they consider the greatest, the most compassionate, the most blessed place on earth.
Yes, there is a religious aspect to the idea of American exceptionalism – that God carved out this land between the oceans and placed upon it the salt of the earth. But as an atheist, I see a much more secular explanation; that fate and the brilliance of a pitifully small number of men combined to present us with a form of government that has allowed the individual to flourish as never before in human history. If this makes us a better place than anywhere else, we should make no apologies and instead, revel in the exceptional nature of our existence.
Beinart can be forgiven his small errors because he so beautifully brings out and celebrates these differences in patriotic sentiment while showing why both the liberal and conservative understanding of patriotism is vital to a healthy country. His piece won’t stop the arguing. But it may initiate dialog that could lead to a glimmer of light so that both sides understand each other a little better.
Comment moderation is off since I will be gone overnight. Please be gentle and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. If you do, be careful. And if you’re not careful, name it after me.