The Corner

Dissent & Patriotism

Yuval: I’ve taken a stab at the subject a few times. But you may be thinking of a recent piece I did for the print magazine. A long excerpt since it’s behind the dreaded firewall:

If patriotism is a thing, if it has meaning as a concept and as a description of attitudes or behaviors, it isn’t surprising that some people will be more patriotic than others — whatever definition we finally settle on. And we need not settle on just one, because there are many kinds of patriotism. Walter Berns argues in his book Making Patriots that, because America is a nation founded on individual rights, American patriotism differs markedly from, say, Spartan patriotism, which extolled loyalty to the collective and the state above all else. Many liberals would agree with this at first blush. But they can’t seem to hold on to the idea that American patriotism has something to do with America.

John Edwards, whose bifocal vision of “two Americas” involves pity for one and contempt for the other, says, “Patriotism is about refusing to support something you know is wrong, and having the courage to speak out with strength and passion and backbone for something you know is right.” Well, no. Dissent is about all that. Patriotism is about loving your country. So, yes, dissent could be patriotic — or it could be treason. Everyone from American Communist spies and saboteurs dedicated to the overthrow of the U.S. government during the Cold War to the protesters carrying signs saying “Bomb Texas, Not Iraq” at your typical ANSWER rally is patriotic, according to Edwards’s definition, which is 200-proof nonsense.

Or consider this supposedly brilliant bumper-sticker insight: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Mark Steyn has had great fun with that line, pointing out that Thomas Jefferson — usually credited as its author — never said anything of the sort. Steyn traces the fakery back to a 1991 quote from Nadine Strossen, the head of the ACLU, an organization with a vested interest in putting the founders’ imprimatur on relentless knee-jerk complaining. (The oldest reference I can find in major newspapers is a 1969 line from New York mayor John Lindsay, who was congratulating anti-Vietnam protesters at Columbia for their patriotism. He was booed after he left the stage, and Paul Boutelle — a cab driver and Socialist Workers party mayoral candidate known after 1979 as Kwame Montsho Ajamu Somburu — vilified him in absentia. The crowd loved it.)

It is worth pointing out that if Jefferson had in fact said something like that, he would have been what social scientists call a moron. As John O’Sullivan once noted, tongue firmly in cheek, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Treason is the highest form of dissent. Therefore treason is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet when you listen to the verbal contortions many on the left go through to defend the New York Times’s efforts to reveal national-security secrets, or to journalists who think expressing open sympathy for America in the international arena is a grave sin, or simply to the usual battiness of countless America-haters, you can appreciate the wisdom of the Italian proverb that the truest things are said in jest.

Like the layers of steel in a Japanese sword, the logic of “Jefferson’s” wisdom folds in on itself until one is left with an adamantine blade of invincible ignorance and razor-sharp asininity. For example, if George Bush and conservatives are little better than Prussian heel-clickers for wearing their patriotism on their sleeves, what does it say about you when you wear your patriotism on your bumper? After all, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” is bandied about almost exclusively by self-styled dissenters. “This is not the first time in American history when patriotism has been distorted to deflect criticism and mislead the nation,” harrumphed the Great Dissenter John Kerry in 2006. “No wonder Thomas Jefferson himself said: ‘Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism.’” Get it? John Kerry is bragging about what a great patriot he is by calling attention to what a wonderful dissenter he is. “I am more patriotic than thou” sneaks up on us in the Trojan Horse of “I dissent more than thou.”

Now it must be said that no conservative standing upon the shoulders of Burke, Nock, Buckley, Hayek, Goldwater, and Reagan would for a moment dispute the suggestion that dissent for the right reason can be one high form of patriotism. But it depends on the reason. The dissenter-for-dissent’s-sake is among the most common species of pest in the human ecosystem. The reflexive contrarian who cares not what he is contradicting is quite simply the most useless of citizens.

When confronted with the assertion that the Soviet Union and the United States were moral equivalents, William F. Buckley Jr. famously responded that if one man pushes an old lady into an oncoming bus and another man pushes an old lady out of the way of a bus, we should not denounce them both as men who push old ladies around. Likewise, we should not say that the man who dissents from a church-burning mob and the man who dissents from a fire brigade are morally equivalent “dissenters.”

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