Each Independence Day, a lot of empty words are spilled, some honorably, some less honorably. But it’s important to understand that different people define the term “patriotism” quite differently.
Peter Beinart’s essay on patriotism in Time this week seeks to distinguish “conservative” from “liberal” patriotism:
[C]onservatives tend to believe that loving America today requires loving its past. Conservatives often fret about “politically correct” education, which forces America’s students to dwell on its past sins. They’re forever writing books like America: The Last Best Hope (by William J. Bennett) and America: A Patriotic Primer (by Lynne Cheney), which teach children that historically the U.S. was a pretty nifty place. These books are based on the belief that our national forefathers are a bit like our actual mothers and fathers: if we dishonor them, we dishonor ourselves….
If conservatives tend to see patriotism as an inheritance from a glorious past, liberals often see it as the promise of a future that redeems the past. Consider Obama’s original answer about the flag pin: “I won’t wear that pin on my chest,” he said last fall. “Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.” Will make this country great? It wasn’t great in the past? It’s not great as it is?
The liberal answer is, Not great enough. For liberals, America is less a common culture than a set of ideals about democracy, equality and the rule of law. American history is a chronicle of the distance between those ideals and reality. And American patriotism is the struggle to narrow the gap. Thus, patriotism isn’t about honoring and replicating the past; it’s about surpassing it.
Beinart goes on to make the pat and uncompelling argument that the two brands of patriotism are not only distinct, but precisely of equal value, presumably at all times and all places. Obviously, a lot of liberals share a reflexive pride in their country that’s not calibrated emotiionally to their precise assessment of America’s validation of its ideals and promise. And there are conservatives who stress the need for America to apply its ideals–sometimes to terrible effect, as in the neoconservative fantasy of a Middle East made over in our image. More importantly, he doesn’t really grapple with how we should think when conservative and liberal models of patriotism are in direct conflict.
But Beinart is definitely onto something, and I would argue that America today particularly needs the form of patriotism he identifies with liberals. To the extent that our country’s past has been characterized by true greatness, it has been when we did take our founding ideals seriously, at the expense of blind obedience to tradition or the kind of sentimental self-praise that is natural to people everywhere. And if we want people everywhere, and future generations of Americans, to consider this country something unique in the annals of nations, it’s a very good time to recommit ourselves to freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, and the wise and generous use of the blessings we have been given by our forebears.