How Many Stars in the U.S. Flag?

by William F. Buckley Jr.
From the August 3, 1998, issue of NR

New York, July 7 — What is the temperature of U.S. patriotism? Everybody, it seems, was asking that question over the weekend. The curiosity is conventional. How good are we in comparison to our fathers; how good were they in comparison with their grandfathers? Even so, observations are offered.

1. The bountiful television coverage of events in Boston and Washington do in fact give rise to something a little different from simple patriotic fervor. In Washington there were the great fireworks but also the exuberant National Symphony Orchestra. And then what is indispensable to the civic impact of music and fireworks are the monuments. Great Washington, Noble Lincoln, the Genius Jefferson, and of course the mythogenic White House. The cameras didn’t rest on it long enough to provoke studied thought to what its contemporary inhabitant has done to dilute confidence in the country, but the application of Gresham’s Law is resisted, and the mind travels to its better residents rather than its poorer.

Still, especially after viewing the marvels of the Boston scene, with firework displays surely never exceeded anywhere, one is forced to ask: Are we being given upscale signs and sounds that serve as phony fermenters of a synthetic patriotism? One analyst spoke of a grandmother who on the Fourth of July simply pulled out and displayed for family reverence an American flag her uncle had brought back as a soldier from World War I. That was her celebration, and all that was needed.

2. It is certainly not simple, and two commentators (Michael Beschloss and Sam Nunn) acknowledged that the wellsprings of patriotism are diminished. For one thing we haven’t had a great war, which is usually a harnessing national experience. For another, the last war we fought was divisive, not unifying. But then, too, there is the relativism that has got into the bloodstream, choking up what once was universally accepted as appropriate tribute to American “exceptionalism.” What is the difference between George Washington and Ho Chi Minh? they used to ask in the fever swamps of the ‘60s. And President Clinton in China, as we celebrated, was saying things on the order of: Who says there is a better leader for China than Jiang Zemin?

3. Senator Nunn spoke of the “erosion” of patriotism, though he thought it more vibrant among the American people than among its leaders. The former will need to ignite the latter, instead of the other way around, as for instance Teddy Roosevelt would have done. Nunn went on (this was on the “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer”) to cite the disfiguring contemporary data in America, “crime, divorce, abortion, drugs.” At a public forum in which the British were being berated for the excesses of the soccer hooligans, the speaker was reminded that we live in a glass house of some vastness. There is, per capita, 900 percent more murders in the United States than in Great Britain.

How is national pride engendered? John Stuart Mill, the great bard of the universal franchise, wrote as if offhandedly that of course he would not give the vote to anyone who would use it merely in his own personal interest. The proud democrat votes for the commonweal; for what is best not individually for the tobacco grower or the steel manufacturer or the schoolteachers’ unions—but for policies that increase liberty and prosperity universally. It is for the vision of what will genuinely help the commonweal that we aspire, and our hope is to generate a high ratio of disinterested voters to special-interest voters.

It is, then, critical to focus on great historical distinctions. Headway in that direction was made by an analyst a few years ago with a happy choice of metaphors. He spoke of “hard” American prestige and “soft” American prestige. The first comes from our possession of the hydrogen bomb and our moon-landing feats of technology. The second, from American manners: American philanthropy and charity. Few countries have cared so much about the poor, mostly within our own borders, but also beyond our borders, as the Marshall Plan attests.

It happened to the Roman society that its shortcomings finally overwhelmed the state, and that a great society became merely a historical sanctuary. Burke said it definitively, that a society, to be loved, must be lovely. The consensus, on the Fourth of July, seemed to be that the American people still think it that, but that some probationary signs are flying.

— William F. Buckley Jr. was the founder and editor-in-chief of National Review. This column appeared in the August 3, 1998 issue of National Review.

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