Sunday, July 04, 2004
Patriotism and the flag
But Jonah Goldberg's July 4 column is fine and dandy. Here are most of the good bits:
Meanwhile sometimes out of angry reaction to America-bashing, sometimes out of political opportunism and sometimes simply because no one else would bother conservatives claimed patriotism as the exclusive province of the right. In our defense, we conservatives believe in, well, conserving. And if upholding the goodness and nobility of the American experiment when others will not isn't conservative, I don't know what is.
The high-water mark of this polarization was probably the 1988 presidential election, in which the senior George Bush wrapped himself in the flag, while Michael Dukakis seemed to consider patriotism a lower priority than agricultural subsidies. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton recognized that patriotic people take voting a bit more seriously than unpatriotic people and focused his campaign accordingly. Today's candidates assert their patriotism daily, with John F. Kerry insisting that if you question his votes, his past positions or perhaps even his haircut you are questioning his patriotism.
Although I think it's absurd to argue that questioning a candidate's positions is the same as questioning his patriotism, it's all to the good that Democrats are fighting Republicans for the mantle of who's more patriotic. Indeed, something similar has been taking place on the academic left. Even the left's dashboard saint, Ralph Nader, can speak eloquently about the grand patriotic tradition of citizen activism that stems from the American founding.
What the left is slowly discovering or rediscovering is the difference between patriotism and nationalism. A nationalist gives his undying devotion to a people. A patriot gives his devotion to an ideal. " 'My country right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case," the essayist G.K. Chesterton observed. "It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' " Although we can debate how much of an atrocity the abuses at Abu Ghraib were, one reassuring sign was the near unanimity of opinion here at home that such acts were "un-American." In the past, the left was so contemptuous of what America stood for that the idea of something being un-American would have been considered a badge of honor.
Back during the Afghan War a not-yet friend of mine sent postcards to all of the merchants in her neighborhood noting that they had recently begun displaying the flag and asking them what sort of symbolic message they meant to send by doing so. This struck me as an interesting thing to do and I talked to her about it at some length. She was, more than most of the merchants, aware of atrocities and abuses that had been perpetrated by conspicuously flag-waving Americans. Because she had this knowledge and expressed it to those merchants who agreed to discuss the matter with her, it was pretty widely assumed that she was a frothing America hater.
Her position as she explained it to me, however, seemed more complex. She wanted to make a distinction similar to Goldberg's between patriotism and nationalism. The difficulty, she thought, comes from the fact that both ideologies make use of the same symbol. So how do you use that symbol, the flag, to express approval of the noble ideals of the patriot without also expressing approval of nationalism? She thought this was a practical question that anyone who displayed the flag faced, and what she was asking the merchants to do was engage it.
It is, I think, a really difficult question. Part of the answer is suggested by Goldberg. That is, those who want to use the symbol for the purposes of patriotism have to take ownership of the symbol and repudiate its nationalist uses.
I don't know whether or not this can be done. The nationalist use of the flag is entrenched, and I'm not sure that entrenchment is avoidable. All the same, it's probably a battle worth fighting so long as the American nation is a going concern.
(Contrast with the confederate flag. Those who display it today sometimes claim that it has nothing to do with slavery or the maintenance of white privilege. Even if they are sincere in these claims, the entrenchment of those meanings is so thorough that they can't be expunged.)