The War Over Patriotism
by Peter Beinart - Time.com - Thursday, Jun. 26, 2008
When critics challenge Barack Obama's patriotism, his supporters have a ready reply: True patriotism has nothing to do with little flags on politicians' lapels. It's not about symbols; it's about actions. It's not about odes to American greatness; it's about taking on your government when it goes astray.
But there Obama is, in his first TV advertisement of the general-election campaign, talking about his "deep and abiding faith in the country I love." And there, perched below his left shoulder, is a subtle, but not too subtle reminder: a tiny American flag.
Obama's no fool. He may not believe that things like flag pins should matter politically, but he knows the difference between should and does. Since Vietnam, the ability to associate oneself with patriotic symbols has often been the difference between Democrats who win and Democrats who lose. Why couldn't George McGovern buy a white working-class vote in 1972? Partly, as the great campaign chronicler Theodore White noted, because virtually every member of Richard Nixon's Cabinet wore a flag lapel button, and no one in McGovern's entourage did. Michael Dukakis lost in 1988 because as governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a bill requiring teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance, a veto the Republicans never let him forget.
Obama is trying to follow a different path, blazed by Robert F. Kennedy, who in 1967--just as he was coming out against the Vietnam War--co-sponsored legislation raising penalties for protesters who desecrate the flag. For his part, John McCain is a walking American flag, his heroic biography at the root of his entire campaign. What both campaigns understand is that American patriotism wears two faces: a patriotism of affirmation, which appeals more to conservatives, and a patriotism of dissent, particularly cherished by liberals. Both brands are precious, and both are dangerous. And in this campaign, the candidate who embodies the best of both will probably win.
Preserving the Past
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.
The President who best summoned this brand of patriotism was Ronald Reagan. After the humiliation of Vietnam, stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan--the nation's oldest President--served as a living link to a stronger, prouder, earlier America. "I would like to be President because I would like to see this country become once again a country where a little 6-year-old girl can grow up knowing the same freedom that I knew when I was 6 years old, growing up in America," he once declared. As a matter of historical fact, that statement was downright bizarre. When Reagan was 6, in 1917, women and most blacks couldn't vote, and America's entry into World War I was whipping up an anti-German frenzy so vicious that some towns in Reagan's native Midwest banned the playing of Beethoven and Brahms. But for Reagan, who sometimes confused movies with real life, history usually meant myth. In his mind, American history was the saga of brave, good-hearted men and women battling daunting odds but forever trying to do the right thing. His favorite TV show was Little House on the Prairie.
As President, Reagan convinced many Americans that they were living in that mythic land once again. He was a master at associating himself with America's cherished symbols. The images in his 1984 "Morning in America" ad--the fresh-faced lad on his paper route, the proud mother in the simple church watching her daughter walk down the aisle, the burly man gently hoisting an American flag--moistened even many liberal eyes. In fact, Reagan practically became one of those symbols himself: the cowboy President, sitting astride his horse, framed by a rugged Western terrain.
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.
Hoping for a Braver Future
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."
How to Be a Patriot
On inspection, the liberal and conservative brands of patriotism both have defects. In a country where today's nativists are yesterday's immigrants and where change is practically a national religion, conservative patriotism can seem anachronistic. To be Spanish or Russian or Japanese is to imagine that you share a common ancestry and common traditions that trace back into the mists of time. But in America, where most people hail from somewhere else, that kind of blood-and-soil patriotism makes no sense. There is something vaguely farcical about conservative panic over Mexican flags in Los Angeles when Irish flags have long festooned Boston's streets on St. Patrick's Day. Linking patriotism too closely to a reverence for inherited tradition contradicts one of America's most powerful traditions: that our future shouldn't be dictated by our past.
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.
But if conservative patriotism can be too exclusionary, liberal patriotism risks not being exclusionary enough. If liberals love America purely because it embodies ideals like liberty, justice and equality, why shouldn't they love Canada--which from a liberal perspective often goes further toward realizing those principles--even more? And what do liberals do when those universal ideals collide with America's self-interest? Giving away the federal budget to Africa would probably increase the net sum of justice and equality on the planet, after all. But it would harm Americans and thus be unpatriotic.
Eminent thinkers, from Tolstoy to contemporary philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and George Kateb, have denounced patriotism on exactly those grounds: that it's wrong to prefer one's countrymen and -women to people in other lands. Patriotism, in Kateb's words, is illiberal; it "is an attack on the Enlightenment." There's a lot of truth in that. Liberals may love America in part because it aspires to certain ideals, but if they love it only because it aspires to those ideals, then what they really love is the ideals, not America. Conservatives are right. To some degree, patriotism must mean loving your country for the same reason you love your family: simply because it is yours.
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.
And no matter how they define patriotism, Americans should tremble before suggesting that any fellow citizen lacks it. Obama's original mistake was not in declining to wear the flag pin but in saying he had stopped wearing it because he saw "people wearing a lapel pin but not acting very patriotic." And that's what makes his current adoption of the symbol so shrewd. By opposing the Iraq war in the fevered year after 9/11--when some Bush supporters branded doves unpatriotic--he has already expressed an understanding of patriotism particularly beloved by liberals: patriotism as lonely dissent. Now he is expressing an understanding particularly important to the conservatives he must court: patriotism as symbolic devotion.
McCain has bucked his side as well. He has refused to bash illegal immigrants. He has championed national service, an idea generally more favored by liberals, which helps Americans devote themselves to their country without donning its uniform. And by crusading against Washington corruption, he has acknowledged how defective American democracy often is, something Reagan, with his airbrushed patriotism, rarely did.
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.
And if anyone gives you a hard time, tell him he doesn't know what true patriotism is.