The Corner

Todd Gitlin on Patriotism

He does not acquit himself well in his dispute with David Frum.(Follow the links and I think you’ll agree.) But one section of his post is interesting.

Finally, in an appendage Frum calls a third point, he says: “Like Obama in his Philadelphia race speech, Gitlin tries to distinguish between the fearfully flawed United States as it is – and the reformed country into which the United States might evolve.” Not such a bad idea, you might think, but Frum attributes to me the view that “It is the latter, hypothetical, country that deserves patriotic affection. But there is this one problem: that hypothetical country does not as yet exist. This is not patriotism – it is a wish fantasy. And it is this wish fantasy, this shrinking from realities, this attempt to let phrases do the work of real ideas, that is the ultimate failure not just of a single book, but of the whole new approach to patriotism that this book and the Obama campaign attempts to sell a rightly skeptical America.”

Well. Perhaps Frum did not study so much American history while a bright young lad in his native land of Canada. Or perhaps there is some other reason why he misses my argument that “the reformed country into which the United States might evolve,” the America of which I write is an America that I haven’t made up, but an America with deep, deep roots that might be summarized in the names Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King….

I see two problems with this viewpoint (or line of defense, if you prefer). Either Gitlin is saying that he loves that part of the country’s past and present that is compatible with his own liberal political philosophy, or he is saying that the America he loves is an America that neither currently exists nor lives only in his imagination but is instead in a continual process of becoming. Neither attitude strikes me as what most people would call patriotism. It’s not a love of the country as it exists, with liberal, conservative, and apolitical components. I have no reason to doubt that Gitlin feels that love, but his theoretical apparatus may not give him the terms in which to express it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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