...over at Armed Liberal. Here's what I wrote in 'I Started To Write About Veteran's Day...':
...and to thank the veterans alive and dead for protecting me and mine. And worried that what I wrote kept coming out sounding either too qualified or would be interpreted as being too nationalistic. And I realized something about my own thinking, a basic principle I'll set out as a guiding point for the Democrats and the Left in general as they try and figure out the next act in this drama we are in. First, you have to love America. This isn't a perfect country. I think it's the best county; I've debated this with commenters before, and I'll point out that while people worldwide tend to vote with their feet, there may be other (economic) attractions that pull them. But there are virtues here which far outweigh any sins. And I'll start with the virtue of hope. The hope of the immigrants, abandoning their farms and security for a new place here. The hope of the settlers, walking across Death Valley, burying their dead as they went. The hope of the 'folks' who moved to California after the war. The hope of the two Latino kids doing their Computer Science homework at Starbucks. I love this country, my country, my people. And those who attack her...from guerilla cells, boardrooms, or their comfy chairs in expensive restaurants... better watch out. I don't get a clear sense that my fellow liberals feel the same way. And if so, why should 'the folks' follow them? Why are we worthy of the support of a nation that we don't support? So let me suggest an axiom for the New Model Democrats: America is a great goddamn country, and we're going to both defend it from those who attack it and fight to make it better.
And for everyone who is going to comment and remind me that 'all liberals already do that' ... no they don't. Not when the chancellor has to intervene at U.C. Berkeley to get 'permission' for American flags to be flown and red-white-and-blue ribbons to be worn. Not when the strongest voices in liberalism give only lip service to responding to an attack on our own soil. Loving this country isn't the same thing as jingoism; it isn't the same thing as imperialism; it isn't the same thing as blind support of the worst traits of our government or our people. It starts with recognizing the best traits, and there are a hell of a lot of them. They were worth defending in my father's time, and they are worth defending today. So thanks, veterans. Thanks soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen. Thanks for doing your jobs and I hope you all come home hale and whole, every one of you.It's been a year since I wrote that, and a lot has happened, close to me and far away. We've gone to war, and are facing a difficult, bloody, and uncertain time, brought even closer to me by the fact that my oldest son has committed to join the military. Many of my liberal friends took me to task for writing the piece above, feeling that I had ignored their real and deeply felt patriotism. I think in many cases it's true, but I also think that in the cosmopolitanism at the core of contemporary liberal thought is the germ of something that finds patriotism atavistic, that sees it as of a piece with extreme nationalism, and that hopes that it can gently be put out to pasture. I've talked a bit about what patriotism isn't:
I'll define patriotism as "love of country". Both the parents above (all three of them, actually) claim to "love" their children. But to blindly smile and clean up when your child smashes plates on the floor is not an act of love. And blindly smiling and waving flags when your country does something wrong is not an act of patriotism. But...there is a point where criticism, even offered in the guise of love, moves past the point of correction and to the point of destruction. It's a subtle line, but it exists. And my friend (who is less of a friend because I can't begin to deal with her fundamentally abusive parenting) is destroying her child. And there are liberals who have adopted an uncritically critical view of America. Who believe it to have been founded in genocide and theft, made wealthy on slave labor and mercantilist expropriation, to be a destroyer of minorities, women, the environment and ultimately they argue, itself. I'm sorry but their profession of love for America is as hollow to me as that mother's profession of love for her son. Are those things true? As facts, they are an incomplete account of this country's history. As a worldview, they are destructive and self-consuming.I believe that a clear rediscovery of liberal patriotism - the reconnection between progressive politics and a love of the American ideal - is the key to rebuilding a liberalism that can both serve American interests and compete effectively with corporate conservatism. I've referenced my old professor John Schaar's great essay 'The Case for Patriotism' before. It's available (excerpted) here, and I want to use it to talk a bit about what I mean by patriotism. When I knew him, Schaar was a true New Leftie; he stood far to my left on a number of issues. But he was also a true patriot, and he had a unique and useful vision of American patriotism that I want to talk about here:
"Patriotism is unwelcome in many quarters of the land today, and unknown in many others. There is virtually no thoughtful discussion of the subject, for the word has settled, in most people's minds, deep into a brackish pond of sentiment where thought cannot reach. Politicians and members of patriotic associations praise it, of course, but official and professional patriotism too often sounds like nationalism, patriotism's bloody brother. On the other hand, patriotism has a bad name among many thoughtful people, who see it as a horror at worst, a vestigial passion largely confined to the thoughtless at best: as enlightenment advances, patriotism recedes. The intellectuals are virtually required to repudiate it as a condition of class membership. The radical and dropout young loathe it. Most troublesome of all, for one who would make the argument I intend to make, is the face that both the groups that hate and those that glorify patriotism largely agree that it and nationalism are the same thing. I hope to show that they are different things--related, but separable. Opponents of patriotism might agree that if the two could be separated then patriotism would look fairly attractive. But the opinion is widespread, almost atmospheric, that the separation is impossible, that with the triumph of the nation-state nation. Nationalism has indelibly stained patriotism: the two are warp and woof. The argument against patriotism goes on to say that, psychologically considered, patriot and nationalist are the same: both are characterized by exaggerated love for one's own collectivity combined with more or less contempt and hostility toward outsiders. In addition, advanced political opinion holds that positive, new ideas and forces--e.g., internationalism, universalism; humanism, economic interdependence, socialist solidarity--are healthier bonds of unity, and more to be encouraged than the ties of patriotism. These are genuine objections, and they are held by many thoughtful people."I think that Schaar exactly targets the weaknesses of patriotism that I criticize above; on one hand, those who embrace it would use it as a basis for blind love of one's collectivity combined with equally blind contempt for others'. On the other, having 'moved past' patriotism is almost a core requirement for inclusion in the modern, NPR-driven thinking class here in the U.S. as well as abroad. The EU, for instance, is explicitly trying to break down old patriotisms into a new, unified, one. Why is patriotism important? Is it because a love of place matters? Schaar talks about love of one's home or one's city as the two forms of traditional patriotism, and he also talks about why patriotism matters to me:
"To be a patriot is to have a patrimony; or, perhaps more accurately, the patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts; one is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines what he or she is. Patrimony is mixed with person; the two are barely separable. The very tone and rhythm of a life, the shapes of perception, the texture of its homes and fears come from membership in a territorially rooted group. The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those who will come after. But such primary experiences are nearly inaccessible to us. We are not taught to define our lives by our debts and legacies, but by our rights and opportunities. Robert Frost's stark line, "This land was ours, before we were the land's." condenses the whole story of American patriotism. We do not and cannot love the land the way the Greek and Navaho loved theirs. The graves of some of our ancestors are here, to be sure, but most of us would be hard pressed to find them: name and locate the graves of your great-grandparents."Despite our disconnection from our ancestry and ancestral places, Schaar and I believe that we can be 'reverent' as Americans. How? He tells us:
"But if instinctive patriotism and the patriotism of the city cannot be ours, what can be? Is there a type of patriotism peculiarly American: if so, is it anything more than patriotism's violent relative nationalism? Abraham Lincoln, the supreme authority on this subject, thought there was a patriotism unique to America. Americans, a motley gathering of various races and cultures, were bonded together not by blood or religion, not by tradition or territory, not by the calls and traditions of a city, but by a political idea. We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles, and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world. Those principles and commitments are the core of American identity, the soul of the body politic. They make the American nation unique, and uniquely valuable among and to the other nations. But the other side of this conception contains a warning very like the warnings spoken by the prophets to Israel: if we fail in our promises to each other, and lose the principles of the covenant, then we lose everything, for they are we." [emphasis added]We are American patriots because we have consciously decided to share the principles that make America - the principles most essentially set out in our founding documents, and over time spread within America to those who had been excluded at the founding. It is our devotion to liberty and our self-conception as citizens that makes us Americans, not an accident of birth or race. My neighbors to the south are a couple born in Iran. My neighbors to the north were born in Mexico. And each of them is absolutely and completely American. Our patriotism is an inclusive one, which does not define us as a 'people' by where we live or the ancestral symbols that we worship (that's part of why I can be tolerant of those who fly the Confederate Flag), but by the principles to which we adhere. Our patriotism is hopeful, because it is tied to the future - but it must also be reverent in tying us to our past. That is a patriotism we can define, and defend. Schaar talks about what Lincoln once said:
"One more statement, this time from the young Lincoln. Again the occasion is significant. Lincoln had just been elected to the Illinois legislature, and he accepted an invitation to address the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield: an occasion of beginning, then, like the speech in Independence Hall. Lincoln chose as his theme, "the perpetuation of our political institutions." He opened the discourse by reminding his listeners that the men of the Revolution had fought to found a polity dedicated to liberty and self-government. Those principles were safe while the founders lived for they knew the price that had been paid for them. The scenes and memories of the struggle were visible to their eyes and lively to their memories. Many individuals and families treasured and retold the stories of sacrifice and danger. But now these scenes are distant. We who came after the struggle and had no part in it cannot see it in the scars on our bodies, cannot even relive it through the eyes and voices of the actors. Being distant, we easily forget why those others fought and died, and we cannot justly value the gift they gave to us. Our forgetting opens the path to talented persons of great ambition who, if they cannot gain fame by preserving the principles of the founding, will gain fame by wrecking them. Only if the founding principles are kept alive and pure in the minds and hearts of the citizenry shall we be safe from perverted ambition--or, indeed, safe from ourselves. We must, then, see as the chief task of political life the task of political education: inculcate respect or valid laws as a "political religion"; retell on every possible occasion the story of the struggle; teach tirelessly the principles of the founding. The only guardian of the compact is an informed citizenry, and the first task of leadership is the formation of such a citizenry. This is a conception of patriotic devotion that fits a nation large and heterogeneous as our own. It sets a mission and provides a standard of judgment. It tells us when we are acting just- and it does not confuse martial fervor with dedication to country. Lincoln also reminded us that the covenant is not a static legacy, a gift outright, but a burden and a promise. The nation consists only in repeated acts of remembrance and renewal of the covenant through changing circumstances. Patriotism here is more than a frame of mind. It is also activity guided by and directed toward the mission established in the founding covenant. This conception of political membership also decisively transcends the parochial and primitive fraternities of blood and race, for it calls kin all who accept the authority of the covenant. And finally, this covenanted patriotism assigns America a teaching mission among the nations, rather than a superiority over a hostility toward them. This patriotism is compatible with the most generous humanism."Defined. Defended. As it should be. We don't need to battle the forces of the Islamists because they are Muslim, or because they are foreign. We need to battle them because they explicitly intend to attack the foundation of what makes us Americans, and because they mean to take the things which others in the world want to learn from America - liberty, justice, equality - and smash them. We need to battle them in the arena of politics and ideas most of all. But the space for that battle must be created on the ground, through a contest of will and weapons. Which brings me back to Veteran's Day this Tuesday, and my appreciation for the men and women who have, are, and will defend our covenant, our American ideal. I said it last year, and I'll say it every year from now on: So thanks, veterans. Thanks soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen. Thanks for doing your jobs and I hope you all come home hale and whole, every one of you. --- UPDATES --- * Guest blogger Rob Lyman follows up with The Moral Duty of Tribal Patriotism, exploring the meaning and scope of the duty we have as citizens to ensure each other's safety and security. * Armed Liberal's Selectve Service post picks up on one of the responses to Rob's essay, and on a blog post on Crooked Timber. He sees them as excellent examples of an 'opt-out' mentality that seeks the benefits of modern liberal society without getting its hands dirty, and values moral purity and self-satisfaction above all.