Is Patriotism Possible?

Members of the boy scouts carry an American flag during the Independence Day Parade in Independence, Iowa, July 4, 2011. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)You can’t love America without loving Americans — and neither of our political tribes seems capable of being content with a country in which the other exists.

Is patriotism possible?

Is it possible for, say, Robert Francis O’Rourke? The Dave Matthews Band of Democratic presidential candidates put this into writing: “This country was founded on racism, has persisted through racism, and is racist today.” If by patriotism we mean simply to indicate love of country, would it be unfair to ask: How could a man of conscience love such a country? O’Rourke here is neither writing about the state nor any particular administration nor any of our nation’s many episodic failures to live up to its own ideals, but about the nation per se.

One cannot love a hateful country the way one might love a racist uncle in spite of his shortcomings, because the love of country cannot survive the contempt and condescension one unavoidably feels toward doddering old men who should have learned better by now but are too old to be taught. You might cut your dotty uncle some slack, but love of country assumes a certain minimum of respect for it and confidence in it that are precluded by the kind of eye-rolling indulgence that in the South is accompanied by the exclamation “Bless your heart!”

If you believed, as Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib believe, that the United States is fundamentally wicked, a force for injustice and oppression at home and abroad, and that this was not the result of ordinary human failure but by design, how could you in good conscience love such a country? If you believed, as Bernie Sanders and Patrick J. Buchanan do, that the United States is an oppressive empire, and that this empire must be disbanded, that it is a cultivator of “undemocratic, repressive regimes, which torture, jail and deny basic rights to their citizens,” as Senator Sanders put it, how could you love it? Not aspects of it — not the Grand Canyon, or the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches — but the whole thing itself?

If you believed that white supremacy is the uniquely defining feature of American life, as Ta-Nehisi Coates believes, how could you bear to feel patriotism? Yet Coates does admit a qualified pride in his country, occasioned — this part is difficult for me to understand — by a visit to Washington, of all cities:

Out there, on the Mall, among the monuments, in this state, it all came at me—the recent readings of American history, my own movements through life—and it congealed into the oddest thing: an intense pride in country. I spend much of this blog discussing race and teasing at the problems of American history. I think that it would be easy to see in that a scornful, pessimistic and cynical view of the country. . . . I’ve found it increasingly harder to do when measuring the country against the breadth of human history. . . .

I don’t know if “American Exceptionalism” means much in this age, but it did, once. In The Feminist Promise, Christine Stansell notes that in 1850, America was the last standing democracy in the Atlantic world. That claim must be qualified by the broad swath of Americans—blacks, immigrants, women—who were disenfranchised. At the end of the 19th century, Stansell notes that Utah and Colorado were two of the only places in the entire world where women could vote. The hackneyed notion that “America is a beacon for democracy” is usually deployed in arrogance. But in the time of Abraham Lincoln, it was a demonstrable fact.

I think of my parents born into a socially engineered poverty, and I think of their children enjoying the fruits (social mobility) garnered by the nonviolent, democratic assault on that social engineering. And then I consider that for centuries, over the entire world, if your parents were peasants, you were a peasant, as were your children.

I think it is proper to be proud of that change. I would not argue for a pride that insists America has worked out all of its problems, and evidences that work by exporting its institutions via tank and bomber. I would argue for a studied pride, a gratitude, that understands all that was sacrificed, that we could have easily tilted the other way, that the experiment is still, even now, fragile, and remains in constant need of the lost 19th century concept of improvement.

Question: Is there anyone who actually advocates “a pride that insists America has worked out all of its problems”? I can think of no one of any consequence. That notwithstanding, Coates here sounds more than a little like National Review editor Rich Lowry, down to noting the “improvements” that figured so large in Lincoln’s thinking, and he implicitly asks the most important question in politics and economics: Compared to what?

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Let us consider, for perspective, China.

China and the United States have some big things in common, including bigness: China and India are the world’s most populous countries, but Americans often forget that theirs is third on the list. Like the United States, China has a modern nationalist sentiment with its roots in the 20th century and a racial identity that is complicated and at least to some extent synthetic. As Professor David Yen-ho Wu put it in his “The Construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese Identities,” Chinese people experience both zhongguoren, “which carries the connotation of modern patriotism or nationalism . . . a connectedness with the fate of China as a nation,” and membership in zhonghua minzu, for which “a close but inadequate English translation would be ‘the Chinese race’ or ‘the Chinese people.’” Professor Wu goes on to note a kind of Chinese Exceptionalism: “Since ancient times, the Chinese have viewed themselves as being at the center, surrounded by culturally inferior barbarians at the peripheries.”

Both zhongguoren and zhongua minzu represent an identity based on concepts of cultural and historical fulfillment rather than the more conventional modern notions of nationality or citizenship. Since most Chinese have believed that the Han people were the race of China, one that had absorbed people of all languages, customs, and racial and ethnic origins; the meanings of being Chinese in the sense of ethnicity, culture, citizenship, or residence were almost never addressed. . . . By the early twentieth century this concept of a “Chinese people” included four major non-Chinese races, descendants of what were formerly referred to as barbarians: The Man (Manchus), the Meng (Mongolians) the Hui (ethnic groups of Islamic faith in northwestern China) and the Zang (Tibetans). It was also believed that these minority groups, like hundreds of others in the past, had been assimilated into the Chinese culture because of the irresistibly superior Han civilization that had carried on unchanged for thousands of years. . . . It was not until the 1960s, under a Marxist ideology and a Russian model of policy, that the People’s Republic established a new concept of being Chinese, which clearly demarcated the Han (ethnic and racially Chinese) and the non-Han (a number of exclusive groups of people representing different cultures, languages, races, and territorial boundaries).

There are important differences, of course, the relative compactness of the American timeline prominent among them, but none of the above is entirely alien to the American experience. Tom Friedman of the New York Times has been energetically derided by conservatives for his “China for a day” fantasy, but that is only the ordinary, eternal progressive dream of unlimited government power in the hands of enlightened dictators. It is only a fantasy about the state.

On the right, there is a different kind of grudging admiration for the Beijing way. There is more than a little suggestion of envy in the anti-China rhetoric of many American conservatives: The Chinese, according to this view, know what they want — national greatness — and they are prepared to pursue it as ruthlessly and unapologetically as conditions dictate. They are, according to these rivals and admirers, unencumbered by such niceties as liberalism, principle, a sense of fair play, honor in their international relationships, etc. Friedman is not the only American looking east and saying, wistfully, “We ought to get us some of that!” Even the sense of minorities being assimilated into an “irresistibly superior civilization” has its ugly American counterpart: How many times have you heard it declared, as though it were a truth we can hold to be self-evident, that African Americans should be grateful that their ancestors were brought to these shores as slaves, in order to spare them life in the Congo or Nigeria? The unapologetic and triumphalist Chinese belief in the superiority of the Chinese way has its envying admirers in the United States, to be sure. Donald Trump is one of them, and offers himself and his style of politics as an American nationalism to match Chinese nationalism in its ambition and scope.

That sort of thing probably is easier to digest when it comes to nations of diminished importance. For example, I often have written that one of the things I most admire about the French is their refusal to apologize for being French, their refusal to be embarrassed by preferring their own language, their own food, their own literature, and their own way of life. The Swiss are not embarrassed to say: Switzerland is for the Swiss. But that is a relatively safe thing to feel about France, which is many years past its ambition to be a global power, or about retiring Switzerland. Swiss pride is a matter of concern to very few people outside of Switzerland. Chinese nationalism and ethnonationalism are questions of worldwide importance.

As, indeed, is the question of American patriotism.

*    *    *

I will note here that to the extent that the political declarations of Robert Francis O’Rourke et al. describe a country it would not be possible or honorable to love, I do not doubt the sincerity of their patriotism — I doubt the sincerity of their politics. I do not believe that they believe what they say they believe, any more than I believe that Donald Trump believed the United States to be a pit of festering “carnage” prior to his election, or that, e.g., Dennis Prager really thinks the United States is such a contemptible and piteous thing that the republic is one election away from falling, as he insisted earlier this week. I do not believe that the United States is three tweets away from a holocaust or that it is, as so many on the right seem to think and sometimes to hope, on the verge of a civil war. And I do not believe that these people really believe those things, either.

Patriotism Inc., like Virtue Inc., turns out to be a camp of moral relativism and situational ethics. Only a few years ago, conservatives were practically unanimous in their criticism of left-wing talk of “economic patriotism.” It was easy for conservatives to understand the illiberal and indeed totalitarian notions in which that concept is bound up when it was coming out of the mouths of Ted Strickland and Barack Obama. Now, conservatives listen to talk shows sponsored by patriotism-branded mobile-phone and coffee companies, and Republicans dream of sanctioning West Coast technology firms for their lack of economic patriotism. “Patriotic” thus for many conservatives effectively has come to mean “right-wing,” while for progressives it has come to mean “operationally progressive,” or at least compliant. And so we see patriotism as a marketing device wedded to patriotism as a partisan political precondition. Republicans have followed Barack Obama in their embrace of a “new New Nationalism,” which looks and smells a great deal like self-interested Patriotism™-branded political marketing wedded to opportunistic partisan anti-capitalism.

What about the real thing?

American patriotism is complicated by the fact that there really is no American patria, no consanguinary nation. There is not much anguish or uncertainty over what it means to be Icelandic. Like Chinese patriotism, American patriotism has been based on a complex ethnic calculus and the presumptive domination of a foundational origin culture (the delineations of which are ever-changing, even — especially — in retrospect) that has successfully and benevolently incorporated the best of that with which it has come into contact. There is a vague awareness of Puritan idealism, an equally vague and changeable conception of something called “white people,” the concepts of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, and the philosophy of the Founding. It is the last of these that really dominates our politics: Conservatives, when they are being conservative, seek to conserve the principles of the American Founding; progressives seek to supplant the Founding philosophy with Wilsonian autocracy, the New Deal, the New New Deal, the Great New Deal, or whatever it is that catches their fancy at any given moment.

Conservatives and progressives both are deeply dissatisfied with the current iteration of the American republic. Conservatives detest American institutions that are the envy of the world, from Silicon Valley to Harvard. The Left understands the country as tainted, its only avenue of possible redemption being the full embrace of every item on the left-wing agenda, which expands hourly: So obsessed are our progressives with the grammatical concept of gender that we now are expected to use the neuter neologism “Latinx” to refer to people descended from speakers of a language that is unintelligible without gender specificity.

And so perhaps the relevant question about patriotism is not whether x or y loves this country but what kind of country x or y would love — and love without the baroque qualifications and self-referential preconditions contemplated by critics left and right. The problem — and this is a great problem — is that neither the Red Tribe nor the Blue Tribe seems capable of being content with an America in which the other tribe exists, predominates in certain communities, and lives on free and equal terms.

It will be a neat trick if either of them figures out how to love America without loving Americans.

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