If I’m a dues-paying member of the Ku Klux Klan, if I carry a picture of David Duke in my wallet, if I use racial epithets all the time, if I use black lawn jockeys for skeet practice, you might — just might — conclude that I’m a racist. It would certainly be understandable if someone were to ask, “Hey, do you think Jonah’s a racist?” If I often dropped everything I was doing to mend the broken wings of little birdies, if I refused to eat or wear anything with meat or animal products in it, if I shrieked in horror whenever someone smacked a bug, you might conclude that I believed in animal rights. If I attended Mass regularly, waxed eloquent on the Holy Trinity, and if I always ate fish on Friday, and so on, you might think I was trying to make my mother-in-law happy. But you might also think that I was Catholic.
What’s the point? Simply this: In life we interpret all sorts of physical actions and espoused beliefs as indications of a person’s adherence to an abstraction. My friends who keep kosher, attend synagogue regularly, wear yarmulkes, and have great facility at compounding interest rates: I often call these people “more Jewish than me.”
Now, religions are funny things, so it’s certainly possible that what is in a person’s heart is a better indicator of the intensity of his or her Jewishness, Christianity, or Islamic-ness, etc. But not being God ourselves, we can’t read people’s hearts and so we have to go by what folks do or say. So, the principle still holds: We can reasonably say that someone is more X if he does things reasonable people recognize as very X-like.
I bring this up for two reasons. First, when it comes to patriotism we are expected to suspend this entirely reasonable rule of thumb. I can say someone is very gay, tall, evil, crude, pious, British, greedy, conservative, liberal, reasonable, and so on. Or I can say someone is not very gay, tall, evil, crude, etc. And, a few exceptions notwithstanding, nobody raises an eyebrow.
But patriotism doesn’t follow this rule. Sure, it’s okay for me to say someone is “very patriotic.” But if I say someone is “unpatriotic” or “not very patriotic,” all hell breaks loose. Indeed, if I merely “question” someone’s patriotism I’m labeled a “McCarthyite” of some kind.
Oh, and the second reason I bring this up is because this is the subject of my latest piece for National Review OnPaper. Unfortunately, Rich Lowry’s infinite wisdom cannot encompass the notion of permitting its publication on NRO. He dispenses the magazine’s journalistic gold to NRO with an eyedropper. If you subscribed to the magazine — with a little note in the memo line of your check saying “This is for Jonah!” — you’d be able to read the whole thing.
I can’t simply crib my entire argument from the mag, but let me give you one last quick example of what got me thinking about this in the first place. I was doing my regular Sunday gig on CNN’s Late Edition. One of my co-panelists, Julianne Malveaux, explained early in the program that she won’t say the Pledge of Allegiance at all — with or without “under God.” Then, later, as the show was wrapping up, Wolf Blitzer asked all the guests what they were doing for the Fourth of July, especially considering all of the terrorist warnings. I said, lamely, “I just moved into a new house, so I’ll be unpacking regardless of the bombs blowing up.”
And Ms. Malveaux said, “I don’t celebrate the Fourth of July. I get up in the morning and read Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” and then I grouse for the rest of the day… I did that last year. I’ll do it this year.”
It occurred to me then — though too late to say anything at the time — that if I had said something to the effect of “I guess I can question your patriotism now,” I would have been the bad guy.
As I note in the mag piece, in American politics you can flagrantly indict someone’s racial tolerance, their love of children, their charity, and so forth — Democrats do it all the time to Republicans — but if you “question” someone’s patriotism you’re an ogre, a bully, an (always ill-defined) “McCarthyite.”
Questioning an opponent’s patriotism isn’t necessarily nice or appropriate, but I don’t know why it’s any worse than Jesse Jackson suggesting Republicans are Nazis or Ralph Nader categorically asserting that businessmen are greedy. I conclude from Ms. Malveaux’s comments about the Fourth of July and the Pledge of Allegiance, and a number of her statements about America and its history, that she isn’t particularly patriotic. That doesn’t mean she’s a bad person or wrong about any given public-policy issue.
Indeed, questioning someone’s patriotism is a lot more innocuous than most people think. An unpatriotic person can be a better person than a patriotic one, obviously. An America-hating citizen can even be a better citizen than one who loves America — in much the same way that someone who hates his job can be a better employee than someone who loves his job.
In short, discerning someone’s level of patriotism doesn’t tell us much. For example, since love of country implies different things in different countries, a patriot in China can be a son of a bitch and a patriot in America a defender of liberty.
WHO DRIVES HISTORY
But that doesn’t mean patriotism is an irrelevant or illegitimate subject. And the area where its relevance and legitimacy is most obvious is in foreign affairs.
Here is Goldberg’s General Rule on Patriotism: The more negative your view of America, the more positive your view of the United Nations. (The only exception I can think of to this rule is a tiny gaggle of “anti-war,” anti-state libertarians who seem to hate America and hate the United Nations both. But the general rule still applies.)
And this only makes sense when you think about it. If you consider America to be an imperialistic, plutocratic, racist bully, you probably also think America would be less of these things if it listened to France or the United Nations (there’s a slight difference). Or, if you merely think America is fine, but that it isn’t special or exceptional in any way, it will be more difficult for me to persuade you that America shouldn’t be treated like any other country in the General Assembly. We’re no better than Burkina Faso or Belgium, so why should we be exempt from the International Criminal Court or the or some wacky international treaty on women or aardvarks?
But, if you think that America is man’s last best hope; if you believe that God or fate arranged for America to be established on this Earth to do two things: chew gum and kick ass (by example or by action); if you are grateful that America has its hands on the steering wheel of history then you will be more than a little skeptical about letting a bunch of backseat drivers in Geneva, the Hague, or Paris tell us where to go and how long it will take to get there. Or, if you’re less emotional about these things, you might just look at the historical record of the various nations giving us advice and say, “Hmmm, China doesn’t have much to teach us about the rule of law,” or “Call me crazy, but Russia can keep its economic advice to itself,” or “The Sudan can call us racist all they like but, you know, at least we abolished slavery.”
I disagree with certain folks on the right when it comes to some arguments about American sovereignty. For example, I’m a free trader and I don’t think the WTO is sapping my precious bodily fluids. But, whether you call yourself an isolationist, a unilateralist, an internationalist, or even, shudder, a multilateralist where you come down on various sovereignty issues is hugely important. America, true patriots recognize, is a nation and a system of laws and institutions designed to ensure individual liberty. The United Nations — a few charitable enterprises notwithstanding — is an expense-account boondoggle largely designed to fill the wallets of kleptocrats and assuage the egos of runner-up nations.
And yet, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, many liberals seem to think that the U.N. is somehow a democratic institution because its members vote. Never mind that many of these votes are cast by people who don’t represent their constituents in any democratic sense. The same people who despise the federal and republican aspects of the United States — states’ rights, the electoral college, indirect elections, etc. — will swoon over the moral authority of U.N. “votes” criticizing the United States. This is like having a gang of criminals “vote” on which old lady they’re going rob and kill and then, looking at the corpse, say, “Well, it was a democratic decision.”
But even if all the members of the U.N. were democratic countries, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t still vote to rob us, or change us, or constrain us in some way. France is a democracy and they do that sort of thing all the time — because they (sometimes rationally) define their self-interest as inconsistent with our self-interest. I’m not against working with other nations and the “international community” — whatever that is. In fact, I am very much an internationalist. But I also believe in American exceptionalism — a belief fueled, I think, by both sound reasoning and sincere patriotism.
Of course, you can think the U.N. is great for America and still love America deeply. Indeed, I have a simple answer to any American patriot who claims that there is no conflict between his love of country and his desire to hitch our fate to the United Nations: “You’re mistaken.” And, therefore, I’m thinking of adding this corollary to my General Rule of patriotism: The more intellectually consistent and pro-U.N. you are, the less patriotic you are likely to be. I haven’t thought that all the way through, but it seems right to me.
“‘My country right or wrong,’” Chesterton observed, “is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’” He was right, of course. And, in my view, the only time America should ever hand the car keys of history to the United Nations is if we’re too drunk to drive.