Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Progressive Patriotism

Left2Right is a new favorite stop for me in the blogosphere. So far, it's been the answer to my devotional wish to find a sane liberal voice on Iraq, the state of the world, U.S. politics, and other issues I like to ponder. By "sane" I mean "appears to come from the same planet I do." These are people I can talk to, maybe even sit down and have a beer with.

Elizabeth Anderson, over there, initiated an excellent and astonishingly civil (so far) discussion this weekend on patriotism and the left, and the real or perceived problem with wrapping those two nouns in one clause.

Some of the commenters say the left is unduly obsessed with its perceived lack of patriotism. I don't think that's the case; rather, I think the suspicion that the left has learned to be reflexively anti-American is one of the reasons Kerry lost the election. And I think the perception bodes danger for the U.S. political system, if it continues to grow.

But at the same time I've come to view a person's ability to express positive things about the U.S. as a test to distinguish the honest left from the pod-people, Chomskyites, and Moore-istas.

Pressed for time in a political debate and want to cut to the chase? Politely ask him or her to talk for three minutes non-stop about what's great about America. "It's the gateway to Canada" doesn't count.

It's a shibboleth, if you will, but in the original sense of that word. Shibboleth is just an everyday Hebrew word, but in the Old Testament it was the password the Gileadites used to distinguish their own men from fleeing Ephraimites, because Ephraimites could not pronounce the -sh- sound in it. Just like the Italians used cicera "chick pea," to identify the French (who could not pronounce it correctly) trying to escape massacre in the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. One of my etymology correspondents, Dan Sachs, has informed me of another instance of this, which I'd love to track down and verify: Marines on Guadalcanal, he says, used "lollapalooza" as a password because Japanese can't pronounce "-L-" (Japanese is one of the many languages that has no such sound). It comes out "Roraparooza."

In the L2R discussion, I notice a tendency of left to claim patriotism by identifying it with a love of the people of the United States. They love our country because they embrace the people who live in it. That only allows them to hug the nation without having any truck with the government, the history, the flag, culture, and all that poisonous material. I can't help getting the feeling some people are trying to squirm out from under that awfully un-PC word, which is, after all, from the same root as the hated noun "patriarchy."

Loving your fellow humans is a virtue, certainly, but its name is not patriotism. Because, as some other commentators point out, the American people aren't the nation, the concept embraced in patria. And that definition of patriotism as love of fellow citizens provides no reason why we should love the people here more, or differently, than the people in Peru. In fact, lacking a national ethnic or linguistic or even cultural heritage, the American people are far less of a nation than most nations are. We're just the same as people everywhere else in the world -- in fact we're more the same [ed. -- ... ummmm] because we're the people from everywhere. Just ask Welsh-English-German-Jewish me, or my Comanche-Irish friend.

Adam Smith (no milksop liberal he) gave a typically balanced 18th century definition of patriotism when he wrote, "the love of our country" rests on two principles: a respect for the constitution and a concern for the good and happiness of others. "He is not a citizen who is not disposed to respect the laws and to obey the civil magistrate; and he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens." ["Theory of Moral Sentiments"]

His country was Britain, of course, but the Britain of those years had something in common with modern America; both, for instance, were reigning world powers. Yet in late 18th century Britain, free-thinking utilitarian intellectuals and evangelical Christians worked together, or side by side, to reform prisons, humanize penal codes, abolish slavery, and educate the poor. That the problems were mostly bigger than the reformers could handle doesn't take away from the power of their combined efforts.

And it seems like Smith's dictum unites the two halves of patriotism that I often meet: follow the rules and defend your country, and work to make your country a more free, fair place for all. Between doing good and doing right, we don't have to stand opposite each other and try to decide which is the real patriotism. Both are.

So I go to the point where the people and the country converge. I said before we're really just a collection of converging bloodlines from all over the planet, but there really is something that sets most of us apart from our cousins, descendants of those who stayed behind in Wales and Peru: We came here. Our ancestors, or our fathers, or ourselves pulled up stakes, risked all, for the chance to make something better out of life.

Solomonia links to a page with translations of the Internet site of Theo van Gogh, the slain Dutch filmmaker. Including this excerpt:

“The dead poor sheep farmers on Sicily at the turn of the century argued that America must be heaven on earth as emigrated family members relayed messages of having meat for dinner every day. That was a mouthwatering experience for people who could enjoy that privilege maybe once in a lifetime. You can argue that particular instinct to be ‘ordinary’ or ‘superficial’ like so many do here, but it is way beyond me to look down on it. America is hated because it embodies the hope of people that yearn for a better life, to have meat everyday, but also to believe in the God they choose, or not. To say what you want without being persecuted. To be a woman without a veil, with the right to vote, free expression and adultery, without being stoned."

That seems to me to get it about right. The Sneering Europeans van Gogh wrote about have little trouble seeing us as a unity -- of superficial cowboys. Never forgot that we're descended from those who thought they could do better, and by and large they have. It really is to one another -- and to the ideals that brought people here -- that we have to commit ourselves to to be patriots.

[I don't mean to apply group characteristics to individuals. I work with people whose ancestors risked their lives to get to America, and their descendants hate it here and say they long to be somewhere else. And obviously neither blacks nor American Indians are descended from people who made the usual choices of immigrants, but many are splendidly patriotic.]

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