Politics & Policy

What Is Patriotism?

On America as idea and as history

Does President Obama love America? Rudy Giuliani shared his feeling about that, then did his best to explain that he had not meant what he’d clearly said. His defenders endorsed the feeling while pointing to Obama’s more and less plausibly unpatriotic associations — with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, with Bill Ayers, with the progressive movement generally. Against this we have the weakness of guilt-by-association arguments, along with the president’s several professions of love for his country (mingled with his criticisms of aspects and episodes of its history). All of which makes for the sort of sloppy, psychologically speculative polemicizing that no argument could hope to resolve.

For my part, I’ll give the president the benefit of the doubt; and the arguments over his policies will go on quite apart from what anyone feels about what he feels. Still, it might be worthwhile to reflect on the meaning of patriotism. Jonah Goldberg defines it as love of country and offers the arresting thought that there is a tension between loving something and wanting to change it. That is true, especially in personal relations, but here it proves too much. It seems to entail that patriotism requires continual acceptance of the status quo. We could avoid this implication by taking “change” to mean fundamental transformation, but still we would have to doubt that the abolitionists, for example, were patriotic.

The needed refinement concerns what is loved when we love America. For me, the answer is a set of principles — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the Bill of Rights; representative democracy; checks and balances; and all the rest. What we should love is the American idea. The love of it sets American patriotism apart from ethnic nationalism and points to a non-chauvinistic way of thinking about American exceptionalism, since the idea itself is the property of no people, or in other words might become the property of any. Wanting to change America is consistent with patriotism in this sense if the change would bring America as an empirical reality into better alignment with America as an idea. (There would still be an argument — Jonah has spent much of his career making it — that progressivism has betrayed the American idea insofar as it has displayed contempt for democratic process. But it seems to me that a criticism cast in such terms is preferable, in its objectivity, to guesswork about the state of someone’s soul.)

What attitude should we take toward the failures — some of them catastrophic — of empirical America to live up to the American idea? At one extreme is the Reverend Wright’s infamous “God damn America.” At the opposite one is a tendency to minimize ugly truths almost unto invisibility. My own civic education in public schools partook of this tendency; that various American founders were slaveholders, for example, scarcely received mention.

The problem with both extremes is that they are too categorical to accommodate the complexity of the truth. Seeing that complexity does not require agnosticism about whether, on balance, America has been good and just. Dinesh D’Souza proposed a complex sort of patriotism when speaking with Jay Nordlinger last summer. He identified a “shame narrative” of American history and contrasted it with his own way of telling the American story. Here is Jay summing him up: “The shame narrators focus on maybe 20 percent of the story, he says. D’Souza simply puts the other 80 percent — the rest of the story — back in.” Right, as far as that goes, although it’s a little contrived to quantify the ratio. President Obama has not to my knowledge spoken in comparative terms, but he also seems to have expressed a belief in America’s great net goodness when describing the United States as “the greatest democratic, economic, and military force for freedom and human dignity the world has ever known.”

There is a defect, however, in looking at history only as a net sum, which is that there is no such thing as an average person living history-on-balance. For me, America has been 100 percent good. But a slave didn’t get an 80/20 split: America was, for him, 100 percent bad. Focusing too much on the big picture can benumb our feeling for just how awful certain episodes of American history have been at their point of intersection with actual lives.

The solution lies, once again, in the concept of patriotism as loyalty to an idea. We can acknowledge the sins of our history unflinchingly and condemn them with full vigor, but go on to note that America has found within itself the intellectual and moral resources to transcend such failures. To extend our running example: The idea of human equality in the Declaration of Independence was enough to overwhelm the element of racist tyranny built into the Founders’ Constitution (alongside its many strokes of intellectual and moral genius). And that is something to be unqualifiedly proud of, even as we lament its working out in history.

As for the Founders themselves, and others like them, all one can do is to fully acknowledge the good and the bad. Kevin Williamson paraphrases something like the “shame” view — and, I think unfairly, attributes it to progressivism generally — as the claim that “Washington, Jefferson, and Madison” were “a bunch of rotten slaveholders, hypocrites, and cowards even when their hearts were in the right places.” “Rotten” is of course too global, for they were more than slaveholders and better than mere slaveholders. But they were slaveholders, and this was hypocritical and a piece of moral cowardice. That indulgence of such evil could exist, in the same men, with excellence and moral virtue of world-historical greatness is something of a mystery.

The mystery dissipates somewhat if we acknowledge the reality of moral progress, at least in our own case. (There is never any guarantee that the arc of history will bend toward justice, but for America, we may be thankful, it has.) Whether something is right or wrong is a binary question. Our attitude toward its rightness or wrongness, by contrast, is a matter of degree, and the dominant attitude of a culture shades the attitudes of the individuals who belong to it.

So we might say of the Founders that they saw what was wrong with slavery but gave its wrongness an altogether different weight than we do, because they did not have the advantage of living when we do. The society we inherit can incriminate us in evils of which we may not even be aware, and lead us to tolerate them even when we are. That is not a bad thing to be reminded of. I don’t blame the president for occasionally reminding us of it. And if you’d like a non-mythological way of thinking about original sin, incidentally, this is it.

— Jason Lee Steorts is the managing editor of National Review.

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