The Corner

Politics & Policy

We Should Have Heeded This Warning From Ronald Reagan

Looking over the landscape of the Right (with its resurgence of blood-and-soil nationalism) and the Left (which these days is an uneasy alliance between corporate-suite globalism and angry, intolerant “social-justice warrior” agitators who see America and its traditions as thoroughly rotten and unjust), it’s easy to wonder where it all went so wrong. How did America split into two angry, insular, and increasingly ignorant camps that hate each other? How did those two camps themselves fracture into factions that also hate their own erstwhile allies?

In these angry times, it’s useful to go back to President Reagan’s 1989 Farewell Address. We remember well the warnings of George Washington against entangling foreign alliances and the loss of religious morality, and Dwight Eisenhower against the military-industrial complex. But it is Reagan’s warning, 28 years ago, that should resonate most with the crises of today:

There is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.

An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.

But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom-freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs [protection].

So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important-why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.

And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.

Reagan was, in his own way, a nationalist; he believed in placing the interests of America first, and in preferring American ideas and the American way of doing things to any other nation’s. But to Reagan, nationalism was simply a component of “informed patriotism” — an understanding of those ideas and ideals and their content and history, and a commitment to advance them both at home and abroad. Passing on that history and heritage, that understanding and appreciation of what America and the American idea have meant to its people and the world, was an essential job. And it’s hard to look at the nation and the world around us and not think we’ve failed at that task, leaving too many people on Right and Left alike to retreat to their base instincts. Reagan didn’t just want us to talk in general terms about America; he wanted us to specifically remember and celebrate its history, and “reinstitutionalize” its respect for basic freedoms and limited government. That didn’t happen.

A common language of patriotism and reverence for the founding ideals of the nation shouldn’t have to be just the province of a handful of intellectuals on the Right. Martin Luther King, who was very much a man of the Left, was so successful against long odds in moving the American people his way precisely because he appealed to the shared language of the American Founding. Reagan himself was an effective populist, and even as recently as a few years ago, the Tea Party movement was suffused with the iconography of the American Revolution and the language of American first principles.

Today, neither right-wing populists nor left-wing social reformers seem to have much faith left in those principles; the former are willing to discard them whenever temporary advantage can be gained in the tribal culture war, and the latter see American principles as the enemy. Both have embraced anti-intellectualism, the former openly, the latter by persistent assaults on language and objective truth and a stifling constriction of the topics that can be freely discussed.

Patriotism? Yes, please. But make it an informed patriotism.


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