July 4, 2008
Do Liberals Love America Too?
It's nearly mid-summer here in the beautiful Midwest. The old saying about the corn being "knee high by the 4th of July" is laughably anachronistic. These days, with hybrid seeds, scientific farming methods, and soil so rich it's almost a separate food group by itself, the corn is waist high by now and reaching for the sky.
There is perhaps no holiday I look forward to more in my adulthood than the 4th. I have several traditions that have taken hold over the years; viewing the wonderful series The Revolution on the History Channel all day, playing patriotic music both old and new, steaks on the barbecue, watching the White Sox, and finally a trip to the local fireworks show.
And never far below the surface is a powerful emotion that can emerge at the most unexpected of times. Sometimes, a particular song can make the throat tighten or a passing memory of a childhood patriotic celebration will cause my eyes to mist over. These outward manifestations of patriotic feelings are, I am sure, shared by many if not most conservatives. We love this country of ours. We worship its past -- the great men and women who risked so much and sacrificed all to create the greatest nation on earth. We glory in our traditions and the symbols of our nationhood.
This despite the fact that most of us also recognize that America has failed at times to live up to the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution; that to this day, the words "all men are created equal" ring hollow for those who suffer the effects of racism, sexism, and bigotry. And that we, a nation of immigrants, don't always welcome newcomers the way we should.
This is one of the major reasons I love history. 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 of America that continues to this day. We are nation in love with peace that has fought uncounted wars, battles, skirmishes and covert operations 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."
Herein lies the great chasm that separates liberals and conservatives when it comes to defining the word "patriotism." The right sees patriotism as a physical, emotional connection with the past; an open acknowledgment and tribute to those who came before us and guaranteed with their blood, sweat, and tears that we, their progeny, would live in freedom. We are aware that America is not all it could be but rather than dwelling on our imperfections, we celebrate all that is good and decent in this land and its people.
The flip side of the same coin is how liberals define patriotism. They seem to intellectualize their love of country. They distrust outward displays of patriotic emotion, tending to equate fervor with patriotism's evil twin -- nationalism. Liberals see a problematic past for America and are not shy about pointing out where America has fallen short in its promises of liberty and equality.
But does this mean that liberals are less patriotic than conservatives?
Is it unpatriotic to want your country to live up to its extraordinary ideals? Is it unpatriotic to criticize what liberals see as hypocrisy in our history, where we celebrate freedom while keeping millions in bondage? Or speak glowingly of Native American culture while treating them abysmally?
Last week, Peter Beinart penned the most thoughtful article on patriotism of the right and left I have ever read. In it, he demonstrated that just because the two sides define the word differently doesn't mean that both don't love America equally. Here's how Beinart, a man of the left, defines the way liberals see 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.
Just this past Monday, Barack Obama, feeling his patriotism questioned, gave a similar explanation for where his own patriotism flows:
As I got older, that gut instinct -- that America is the greatest country on earth -- would survive my growing awareness of our nation's imperfections: it's ongoing racial strife; the perversion of our political system laid bare during the Watergate hearings; the wrenching poverty of the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia. Not only because, in my mind, the joys of American life and culture, its vitality, its variety and its freedom, always outweighed its imperfections, but because I learned that what makes America great has never been its perfection but the belief that it can be made better. I came to understand that our revolution was waged for the sake of that belief -- that we could be governed by laws, not men; that we could be equal in the eyes of those laws; that we could be free to say what we want and assemble with whomever we want and worship as we please; that we could have the right to pursue our individual dreams but the obligation to help our fellow citizens pursue theirs.For a young man of mixed race, without firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father's steadying hand, it is this essential American idea - that we are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make of our lives what we will - that has defined my life, just as it has defined the life of so many other Americans.That is why, for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it is also loyalty to America's ideals - ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion. I believe it is this loyalty that allows a country teeming with different races and ethnicities, religions and customs, to come together as one. It is the application of these ideals that separate us from Zimbabwe, where the opposition party and their supporters have been silently hunted, tortured or killed; or Burma, where tens of thousands continue to struggle for basic food and shelter in the wake of a monstrous storm because a military junta fears opening up the country to outsiders; or Iraq, where despite the heroic efforts of our military, and the courage of many ordinary Iraqis, even limited cooperation between various factions remains far too elusive.I believe those who attack America's flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals, and their proven capacity to inspire a better world, do not truly understand America.
A fair minded person can read what Obama says and get the sense that his idea of patriotism really isn't that much different from the love of country expressed by conservatives. He condemns the mindless hatred many on the far left express about America while acknowledging that honoring the symbols and history of America is a legitimate way to express one's patriotism. The key to his love of America, though, is his belief that where our past comes up short in living up to our ideals, it is our patriotic duty to close that gap.
Beinart shows how even though there are different ways that liberals and conservatives express their love of country, they are both necessary and vital for a whole America:
When it comes to patriotism, conservatives and liberals need each other, because love of country requires both affirmation and criticism. It's a good thing that Americans fly the flag on July 4. In a country as diverse as ours, patriotic symbols are a powerful balm. And if people stopped flying the flag every time the government did something they didn't like, it would become an emblem not of national unity but of political division. On the other hand, waving a flag, like holding a Bible, is supposed to be a spur to action. When it becomes an end in itself, America needs people willing to follow in the footsteps of the prophets and remind us that complacent ritual can be the enemy of true devotion.Patriotism should be proud but not blind, critical yet loving. And liberals and conservatives should agree that if patriotism entails no sacrifice, if it is all faith and no works, then something has gone wrong. The American who volunteers to fight in Iraq and the American who protests the war both express a truer patriotism than the American who treats it as a distant spectacle with no claim on his talents or conscience.
In a very real sense, Beinart's ideas are as revolutionary as America itself. His connecting the two different yet essential forms of patriotism harkens back to our founding where two competing views on the nature of man fought for dominance at the Constitutional Convention.
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 Christian 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.
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.
That's an ideal that all of us -- liberal and conservative -- can live up to.
Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker and proprietor of the website Rightwing Nuthouse.