Sebastopol had its annual fireworks show last night, on the 3rd. (That way people can take in even more fireworks nearby, on July 4.) Analy high school’s athletic field and bleachers were filled by hordes of happy spectators celebrating our country’s birthday as well as having a very good time. Standing for the Star Spangled Banner, it was hard not to ponder what love of country and patriotism means.
Among people with progressive sympathies patriotism has gotten a bit of a bad rap by being equated with those who talk the most about it. It’s rather like religion getting a bad rap because of the excesses of those who make the most noise about it. I think this is too bad. Patriotism is a complicated emotion and a complicated commitment, but it is very real for most of us none the less.
I think there are two kinds of genuine American patriotism, and two false kinds. We have a great deal of the second over the past decade and not nearly enough of the first.
Genuine American patriotism takes two forms. They are not mutually exclusive, but they appeal to different dimensions of who we are as Americans. The first is a deep love for the principles upon which our country was founded, principles enunciated clearly in our Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The same values are also clearly implied in our Constitution’s preamble.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
These principles apply timelessly to all people, but are particularly associated with our own founding. They emphasize all people are worthy of respect, equality under the law, and a voice in determining the laws and institutions under which they live. Of course cynics will argue, and argue truly, that too often these principles were imperfectly observed, or even denied. But to take their greatest failing, the long persistence of American slavery in the South after independence, these words served as a standing reproach to those who practiced this evil on their fellow human beings. The reproach was so strong that ultimately the South repudiated the principles of 1776, as the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens, put it:
Our new government is founded upon . . . the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.
Thus our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Our founding principles are important for another reason. They are in accord with humankind’s highest religious teachings. As secular principles they do not reach so high, but are in fundamental harmony with principles of love and compassion. Indeed, the principles enunciated in our Declaration are probably the only principles by which men and women of different beliefs and practices can live together peacefully as equals. Our good neighbors to the north emphasize good government and public order rather than the ideals of the Declaration, but they do so in ways in keeping with the Declaration’s assertion that all are worthy of equal respect and a voice in their governance.
The second form of American patriotism is rooted in our love of our community because it is OUR community. As Americans we share a common life often lost from sight until some disaster or aggression against some of us focuses us on what we share in common as a political community. 9-11 was such an event, and even those of us watching the attack from the far West winced and felt some of the horror and pain as we saw those jets slam into the World Trade Center towers. Similarly, we sympathized with the people of New Orleans as Katrina turned a great city into a wasteland. Many Americans left their homes far from a hurricane’s destruction, and drove south to help. And many of the people of New York and New Orleans would seek to help us Californians, should a great earthquake devastate us, as one day it will.
This kind of patriotism is in many ways similar to our love for our families. We may not agree with other family members, even over issues we hold dear. We certainly did not choose them. But we are still family, sharing a common bond and obligations of loyalty and regard and even love. Thanksgiving is a powerful affirmation of these ties, the only major holiday corporate America has yet to turn into a profit center. If at no other time, Democrats and Republicans, Pagans and Christians, Believers and Nonbelievers gather together to celebrate both as members of a family and members of a nation. It is a standing rebuttal to those who argue patriotism of the heart necessarily needs enemies.
There is another aspect to this kind of patriotism. I love my family but do not imagine it is qualitatively superior to all other families. I know other people love their families with just as much justification as I love mine. The same hold for love of my country. Genuine love of country does not denigrate other countries.
Yet as bad money drives out good, two imposters have weakened the hold genuine patriotism has for many of us. Like tapeworms and other parasites, they masquerade as what they are not to take on a vitality they could never acquire on their own. And like other parasites they weaken their host. Too many of them can destroy it. And we suffer from a bad infestation of those who raise false patriotism above the real thing.
The first of these parasitical imposters is the “patriotism” of those Americans who exclude many of their fellow Americans from full membership in our country. It is exemplified in the Bush administrations seeking to eliminate attorneys from the Justice Dept. who did not share their politics in order to replace them with “good Americans.” It is the “patriotism” of the Glenn Becks, Pat Buchanans and Michelle Malkins, among others known and unknown, who exclude people they have never met and about whom they know nothing beyond their politics, religion, ethnicity, or previous nationality being different from theirs. For these people patriotism is not belief in our country’s founding principles, but belief in community homogeneity, not love of a symphony, but for a single note, repeated over and over again.
To return to my family analogy, it is as if membership in my family requires agreement among us all, and anybody with different views is expelled. Attitudes like these shatter families and countries alike. Far from being evidence for either love of family or love of country, this attitude is only a narcissistic love of self expanded to include or reject all others based on how well they confirm my own sense of what’s right. Those who differ from my values or attitudes do not deserve fellowship with me. It narrows, embitters, and weakens a country because it reflects attitudes at odds with genuine love of country as well as human decency.
Bad as this third kind of “patriotism” is, it is Enlightenment itself compared to the most toxic of all. The fourth is simply love of power and domination over others tarted up in patriotic rhetoric. It is exemplified by Jonah Goldberg, editor of the “conservative” National Review Online (NRO) in his comment on April 23, 2002 advocating we attack Iraq:
“I’ve long been an admirer of, if not a full-fledged subscriber to, what I call the “Ledeen Doctrine.” I’m not sure my friend Michael Ledeen will thank me for ascribing authorship to him and he may have only been semi-serious when he crafted it, but here is the bedrock tenet of the Ledeen Doctrine in more or less his own words: ‘Every
ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.'”
Or as he put it even more bluntly, “The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense.” Left unmentioned is that the only way to ‘prove we mean business’ and go to war somewhere because we “have” to, involves killing enormous numbers of men, women, and children who did us no harm at all. His outlook is the outlook of a murderer. He and those like him have dragged our country’s reputation through the mud of torture, aggressive war, killing tens if not hundreds of thousands, and imprisoning the innocent even when we knew they were innocent.
This is the philosophy of the thug. The so-called “neo-conservatives” like Michael Ledeen, and the so-called “conservatives” like Goldberg who support them, exemplify this most subversive of patriotic poses. They glorify our country’s power while undermining the well-springs of that power. They are excited by our capacity to impose our will and kill those who disagree. They argue the President is above the law, an American Caesar, and that the principles our country was founded on cannot withstand an attack by 19 Arab fanatics. “Everything has changed” they intone learnedly. Nor are they simply hacks like Goldberg. They have included some of our highest officials.
Worst of all, these people use genuine patriotism to undermine itself, as when George Bush justified or attack on Iraq in the name of America’s democratic principles when the true reason was to seize control of oil. The truth of his intentions came out when Bush stated we should plan to occupy Iraq indefinitely. Even now, former Vice President Cheney implies that if we leave our soldiers will have died in vain. Democratically speaking, a majority of Iraqis and a majority of Americans want us out.
Further, by claiming that patriotism is only genuine for those who support them, they weaken our nation internally by turning American against one another. They equate themselves with the country as a whole, the better to force their way on others.
This fourth kind of “patriotism” undermines first two and is ultimately unconcerned with the third. Those adhering to it are among our country’s most dangerous enemies. One of the saddest aspects of politics today is that so many well-meaning Americans still believe these people love their country when what they really love is power and domination.