Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Outsiders

Obama on patriotism:

I love this country not because it's perfect, but because we've always been able to move it closer to perfection. Because through revolution and slavery; war and depression; great battles for civil rights and women's rights and worker's rights, generations of Americans have shown their love of country by struggling and sacrificing and risking their lives to bring us that much closer to our founding promise. And as long as I live, I will never forget that I am only standing here because they did .... That is the country I love. That is the promise of America.

He may not frame it the way you would or list the same categories you would. But do you see that it is the kind of thing you say when you are within the American tradition and intend to stay there?

Which ought not even to be a consideration in a presidential campaign, but nowadays it has to be.

In fact, Obama's rhetoric is closer to the original patriotism of the young country, whose citizens saw it very much as a work in progress, with divine guidance but distant goals, than is much of what passes for patriotic speech today. "My country, right or wrong," whether uttered by Decatur or Schurz, always had a sincere qualifier: May she always be right. And an unspoken commitment to do one's part to make or keep it that way.

In the early republic, Americans furiously debated highly divisive issues, from slavery to Indian removal, economics, foreign relations, big government, religion and politics, war and peace -- easily as fractious as the topics we mangle one another over today. But the debaters were of a broad consensus that America was a place meant to improve and to achieve its potential, and that solutions to these problems and the power to accomplish them lay in the inherent virtues of the people and the nation. They typically framed their arguments in appeals to the moral and enlightened qualities in their fellow citizens. As late as Lincoln's time, he (and Seward) could write of "the better angels of our nature."

Yet it seems to me something entered the American discourse about the time of Thoreau and Garrison. It stood outside the American experience, and said the country and the people in it were so tainted and inherently wicked that the problems, not the virtues, defined America, and the solutions lay outside the nation and the people. And the proper place for a moral person was in opposition to America as it is.

It had as its necessary antimatter the slavery apologetics that repudiated the Jeffersonian vision of human equality and the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

It has been with us ever since. One side-effect is the sort of protest or civil disobedience that makes no attempt to convince anyone or change anything, and is aimed only at expressing the moral superiority of the protester to the country he inhabits.

The very challenges our forebears debated now became the stigmata that mark the country as fatally flawed. On the left, it has almost become an academic shibboleth that the taint of the treatment of Indians and slaves was so great that it drowned in blood and tears any claim to special virtues for America.

In every election, one side will tell you that the system is working, even if it splutters and knocks. They will tell you the country is on the right track, even if it swerves.

And the other will persuade you you're being cheated and that things are hopelessly off track and need to be fixed.

No party has a lock on those positions. Democrats and Republicans will switch seats regularly. What has been lost in the rhetorical degradation of our politics is the discernment to talk those lines within the boundaries of a patriot's speech. There is a danger in being too negative about the country. That is a tight rope to walk. But it is not necessarily anti-patriotic, just as the position that asks you to stay the course is not necessarily complicity in whatever flim-flam may be breaking up the national compact.

Obama, in that speech, clearly takes his stand inside the line that separates the patriot from the political anti-patriot. There and elsewhere. I think he sees the line and knows it for what it is and is careful of it. He need only read Frederick Douglass, who had a sure sense of it, despite much greater cause for stepping over it than many of his modern admirers can claim. And I am willing to take Obama at his word on that much.

But that means Obama must also see, and know, how much, how vast a weight, of his support is outside that line. And that he will have to reckon with this someday.

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