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National Security & Defense

A Rerun of Past Debates of What Love of Country Really Means

If you feel like you’ve heard this “Does this political figure love his country?” debate before . . . it’s because you have.

Peter Beinart, writing back in 2004 in Time magazine, contending that conservatives and liberals loved their country in different ways:

Conservatives know America isn’t perfect, of course. But they grade on a curve. Partly that’s because they generally take a dimmer view of human nature than do their counterparts on the left. When evaluating America, they’re more likely to remember that for most of human history, tyranny has been the norm. By that standard,America looks pretty good. Conservatives worry that if Americans don’t appreciate — and celebrate — their nation’s past accomplishments, they’ll assume the country can be easily and dramatically improved. And they’ll end up making things worse. But if conservatives believe that America is, comparatively, a great country, they also believe that comparing America with other countries is beside the point. It’s like your family: it doesn’t matter whether it’s objectively better than someone else’s. You love it because it is yours.

. . . If conservatives tend to see patriotism as an inheritance from a glorious past, liberals often see it as the promise of a future that redeems the past. Consider Obama’s original answer about the flag pin: “I won’t wear that pin on my chest,” he said last fall. “Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.” Will make this country great? It wasn’t great in the past? It’s not great as it is?

The liberal answer is, Not great enough. For liberals, America is less a common culture than a set of ideals about democracy, equality, and the rule of law. American history is a chronicle of the distance between those ideals and reality. And American patriotism is the struggle to narrow the gap. Thus, patriotism isn’t about honoring and replicating the past; it’s about surpassing it.

Put another way, liberals don’t love America as it is, but they love what it could be someday.

Some would dispute whether that really fits the definition of love. Try “I don’t love you as you are, but I love what you could be someday” with your spouse, family, children or close friends and see how they react.

Al Franken — then comedian, now senator — made the parent/spouse comparison explicitly back in 2004:

We love America just as much as they do. But in a different way. You see, they love America like a 4-year-old loves his mommy. Liberals love America like grown-ups. To a 4-year-old, everything Mommy does is wonderful and anyone who criticizes Mommy is bad. Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad and helping your loved one grow. Love takes attention and work and is the best thing in the world.

That’s why we liberals want America to do the right thing. We know America is the hope of the world, and we love it and want it to do well.

For obvious reasons, a lot of folks react negatively to the Franken approach to loving the country. First they dispute that the country has as much bad as Franken and other liberals assert, and secondly, they strongly disagree that liberals like Al Franken are the right ones to “help America grow.”

Whether or not you think Barack Obama loves America — almost all of his speeches include a portion describing some Americans behaving xenophobically, irrationally, abusively — he clearly dismisses the gestures that most other political figures consider standard expressions of patriotism:

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