Grounded as I am in coming-of-age during the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, I tend to have a problematic relationship with patriotism and all its accoutrements—the flag, the pledge, the star-spangles, the moist-eyed emotion and breast-beating triumphalism.
In my college years, I learned to cast a skeptical eye on government pronouncements and white-washed histories. I discovered the relevance of sociology (Hmm…sociology, now there’s a thought!), psychology (Oh, what a neurotic-at-best mess we are!), and the role of basic brutality and genocide—there is simply no other way to say it—in subduing the American frontier. All under the cloak of “manifest destiny,” a handy and high-falutin’ term for “God wants us to own all this, so let’s go wipe out another Indian tribe.”
The revisionist look at American history taking place then was only exacerbated by the travesty of Vietnam, when the modern faultlines of today’s political and cultural wars suffered their deepest fissures. Sometime in those years, liberals turned with something close to virulence against what they perceived to be the fraud and hypocrisy of the traditional American narrative, in which God and the American peoples’ special status as his torch-bearers enable them to fight the good fight for truth, beauty and goodness.
Flag-burnings at anti-war protests were among the more potent symbolic expressions of this virulence, a development that allowed conservatives to accuse liberals of “hating” their country.
Liberals answered that they actually loved their country enough to try to change it, which was often enough true, but let us be frank: Their words and symbolic actions didn’t always suggest as much. If you could collect a dollar from every liberal in the country who flew a flag in front of his or her home and lustily sang the Star Spangled Banner at ballgames during those years, you wouldn’t budge the needle even a smidge on your net worth.
This aversion to symbols and expressions denoting love of country became an almost standard part of the liberal repertoire over the years. Much like religious liberals who became shy talking about and claiming their faith and its imperatives for fear it would be mistaken for the fulminations of louder and better organized fundamentalists, liberals increasingly ceded the ground of patriotism to conservatives.
They became almost embarrassed by any expression of love of country, and skeptical of any positive qualities attributed to it. Too often, they looked for the dark side of any American endeavor, and they always found it, because the dark side is always there, American endeavors being human endeavors, which is to say: flawed, like all humans everywhere.
We are special neither in our purity nor our malevolence, instead holding in common with all nations and all people a mixture of the good and bad, the white knight and dark invader.
Ronald Reagan and his supporters made hay with liberals’ jaundiced views of their mother country and its symbols, citing their persistent criticism of American history and its problems as part of a “blame America first” ethos. And to this degree at least, he was right: Just as many conservatives were and remain rosily deluded in thinking of America and Americans as holding some special place in God’s moral universe, so too were many liberals deluded in thinking that America holds some especially contemptible place therein. We are special neither in our purity nor our malevolence, instead holding in common with all nations and all people a mixture of the good and bad, the white knight and dark invader.
Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Milosevic: none of them Americans, all very good and self-sufficient at harvesting their ideas quite apart from any American influence.
These thoughts have occurred to me in the wake of the most curious recent ambush. Walking past the television where my daughter was watching one of the several cop/crime shows she seems addicted to (I fear she will learn how to be either an FBI agent or a serial killer, neither one an attractive prospect), I beheld a young Indian man (Asian, not Native American) involved in a few rapid-fire scenes that depicted his taking the oath of American citizenship. It was affectingly played against the backdrop of a plotline my daughter later explained to me, but the notable thing was how quickly I stopped in my tracks to witness the scene.
Me, a certified liberal sporting “a problematic relationship with patriotism and all its accoutrements,” finding tears instantly forming in my eyes as this inordinately sincere young man pronounced the oath, waving away the officiant’s “Repeat after me” direction and reciting the oath from memory—proudly, eloquently, with surpassing emotion. You could almost hear the bugles blaring in his heart.
Some of this response likely came from memories of witnessing my own parents taking the oath when I was a young boy. I remember how studiously they pored over their test materials in the months preceding, how proud they were to pass the test and raise their hands in a dank Los Angeles courtroom annex, how conservative they angled politically, paired with and emanating as it did from their fierce anti-communism after their native Hungary was overrun by the Soviet Union in 1956.
Perhaps liberals know too much, have read too much, have not been able to avert their eyes from the stains this country has left upon the soil by way of slavery, the Native American genocide, the squandering of our edenic environment, the frequent support of dictatorships so long as they served our strategic (read: economic) interests.
Or perhaps we are ourselves naïve in thinking the U.S. should be different, somehow above the human propensities to exploit, to seek advantage, to assert a sometimes naked and ruthless will. Perhaps we are in denial of those basic human facts, and thus unable to see the ongoing need for forgiveness of everyone—including ourselves and this country that we by turns excoriate and flourish within.
Perhaps we need to admit more readily that countries (and people) behave badly sometimes, and that fact needs to be understood in a larger context and forgiven for the all-too-human and universal failing that it is.
What I know is that I no longer feel even remotely torn or prone to hives when I see the American flag, I don’t think Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann have any more right to claim love for it than I do, I always take off my hat and hold my hand over my heart while singing along with the national anthem, and that love of country means neither blindness to nor defense of its deficiencies.
Does that make me a patriot?
Jimi Hendrix coaxed his guitar to project all the outrage and pain of the age at the iconic Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Many thanks to the photographers: Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Flag photo near top of page courtesy of DonkeyHotey, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/
Vietnam War protest photo courtesy of the Robert Joyce papers, 1952-1973, in the Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatespecial/
Citizenship oath photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/people/grand_canyon_nps/
Maybe replacing love of country with a simple love of humanity might be a viable alternative. Even that has problems:
a. Some people are simply not forgivable (Stalin, Hitler, etc).
b. There are too many people already, making each of them less welcome.
Like any love, loving one’s country can be taken too far (Nazis, Tea Party, etc). An individual’s thinking should not stop there, otherwise any act could be excused (Nuremberg).
Love of country (especially this one) can mean a conscious respect for differences in how that love is manifested. These differences have certainly escalated in recent years on the political and political/religious fronts. Obama 1.0 now appears naive in believing he could overcome and change harsh partisanship. The 2.0 version of our President appears much tougher, much more pragmatic, and much more willing to lead aggressively in an environment that remains intensely vitriolic. An environment, and a country, that can somehow embrace huge and passionate differences in world views is something for which we must be thankful. Does that view make us patriotic? I believe so.
Walt, I think “love of humanity”—more borderless, more embracing—is where things will inevitably go. Love of country will become more like love of our hometown football or baseball team: fun and passionate and even prideful, wink wink, viva le difference, but more in a spirit of fun & respect and certainly not worth killing anyone over. A David Brooks column this morn cited stats that those 65+ still overwhelmingly feel “America is the greatest country,” but those under 35, quite a bit less. He was mostly bemoaning that loss of confidence, but it has its healthy qualities, seems to me.
Jay, this partisan divide is a most curious thing—I can well remember when moderate Repubs & Dems weren’t too far apart ideologically, flanked by their more conservative & liberal wings. But moderate Repubs have disappeared, been dumped, demonstrably so. When John McCain is called out by fellow party members for being too squishy & accommodating, we know things have gone off kilter. I think Obama 1.0 was chasing that phantom of moderate Repubs and was hoping to cut deals with them, but they had left the chambers, and a somewhat ineffectual first term was the result. The question is whether we are destined for weak presidencies prone to gridlock until a more conciliatory, country-first tone sets in. We’re not engaged in civil war—yet!—although to hear some rhetoric from the far right, we have a lot of folk prepping for it. Interesting times!
While we are very close in age, it appears that we have had quite different experiences with patriotism over the years. In my university years in the 1970s I was part of the anti-war movement (what was left of it), but I kept a large American flag draped over a bookcase in my room for years. As an adult over the last 20 years, I had a smaller American flag flying in my living room until my daughter convinced me that I had to reduce the clutter (I live in an urban apartment, so flying a flag outdoors was not possible). My older brother, who is even more liberal than I, flew a large American flag outside his house every day for many years. I think there were and are far more “liberals” who were happy to show the flag than you realize. This being said, neither my brother nor I ever got into the “breast-beating triumphalism” you mention in your first paragraph. I always found that offensive, and I suspect my older brother felt (feels) the same way.
I am in wholehearted agreement with the comments in the latter half of your article about the light and darkness in all of us. I would go so far as to say that some individuals carry more light and some more darkness. Some political systems and some cultures carry more light, and others carry more darkness. And the balance of these forces in political systems & cultures can change over time. For instance, you & I might agree that the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-War movement, and the reaction against the excesses of the FBI in the 1960s & 1970s brought more light to the American system, while George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the general suppression of dissent at that time brought more darkness. We have a responsibility to inject as much light, and remove as much darkness, from the systems around us as we can.
You paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s critique of the left without bringing up any examples of the specific statements he criticized. We have a case study happening right now, the events in Ukraine, which you might like to explore. Where is the light and the darkness in the Ukraine, and in the reactions of other powers, including Russia, the EU and the US, to the events in Ukraine? Some commentators on the left (e.g., Robert Parry in a recent Consortium News article) see nothing but evil in the successful demonstrators in Kiev. Parry’s primary logic? Right wing anti-communists in the US support the Kiev demonstrators, so therefore they must be evil. If we apply the same logic to the 1956 uprising in Hungary, then that uprising must also have been evil (because right-wing anti-communists in the US supported it). I find this absurd. In other words, I agree with you that sometimes some members of the left go too far in criticizing the US (if that is what you are saying). But the left has a much wider spectrum of views than that.
There is an interesting series of articles in the press now that discuss whether Americans still believe in American exceptionalism, whether they still have confidence in America, and why. Without naming it, they are writing about the roots of patriotism. You might find them interesting. They might even inspire another post on your part. Here are the links to the three I’ve read, in chronological order.
First, a detailed presentation of poll data in National Journal:
Next, a David Brooks commentary on the above article. Brooks expresses a typical right-wing viewpoint. He blames people’s loss of confidence on some unexplained change in individual attitudes:
Next, a prof in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselear Polytechnic points out that the insecurity Brooks sees & criticizes is driven by clear economic factors, which Brooks ignores:
The three articles make for interesting reading, and present an interesting picture of the American political debate in microcosm.
I look forward to your reaction and to your next post in the series.
Thanks for this thoughtful response, Jim. I suspect there was definitely a difference in our upbringings or cultural backdrops with respect to expressions of patriotism. Your solid & sensible midwestern roots probably held love of country as an abiding default perspective, whereas in California, I witnessed virtually none of the basic symbology of flag display (and all it represents) by liberals that you maintained through that time. At least in my experience, anything even remotely resembling patriotism was regarded as toxic through a period of the 70s-80s and even beyond, when the backlash against Vietnam took serious root and conservatives seemed to abscond with patriotism and religion, largely enabled by liberals who ceded that ground to them. The undercurrent of anger and default distrust of all things American was almost palpable in liberal circles I witnessed, although granted, there was, as always, a wider spectrum of thought running through liberalism, just as in conservatism, than is reflected in my admittedly generalizing comments.
The Beinart article was fascinating and informative, and among its many worthy insights was his citing of sociologist Karl Mannheim’s observation that “people are most influenced by events that occur in their late teens and early 20s—once they separate from their parents but before they establish stable lifestyles and attitudes of their own.” For baby boomers, that age coincided with Vietnam, the catalyst for many of the faultlines that still divide American culture and politics. Millennials have their own catalyst in the iraq War and the Bush-Cheney (probably more Cheney-Bush) doctrine of muscular foreign policy, with all the havoc and destruction that have flowed therefrom.
Both Vietnam and Iraq helped to crater any sense of American exceptionalism in any moral or political sense, and part of the tragedy in that is a turning inward to an isolationism that is also unworkable, it seems to me, in a dangerous world that needs us, for better and for worse (and there is some of both) in situations like Syria and Ukraine. Like it or not, we’re a world power, so that world looks to us for help if and as it can get it. I maintain enough of a realpolitik frame of mind to know there are a lot of bad actors out there we need to deal with as best we can, and that doing so will inevitably get our hands dirty—imperfect actors doing what we can in an imperfect world.
As for the thorny elements of which side to support in which fracas, e.g. the Syrian opposition which seems to include elements of Al Qaeda, though some opposition troops are also fighting against them?—these are the tortuous questions that guarantee no perfect solution or clean hands involved in any of the long-running disputes ever flaring across our world. So we do what we can, mixing idealism and realism, standing up for what we think is right, but doing so in all humility, knowing our vision is inevitably clouded, our judgements incomplete.
Thanks for your additional comments. I understand what you mean by “liberal” hatred of almost anything coming from the American government or American corporations. I have heard people systematically express this during some of my visits to Berkeley over the past few years. I find their attitude sad. But I just visit Berkeley, I don’t live there.
Where I live, and in some of the other places I visit, there are certainly prejudices, but they have a different flavor. Sometimes they come up in issue areas where I don’t expect them at all.
Naively, I thought that most of my “liberal” friends would sympathize with Edward Snowden’s disclosure of mass NSA spying on Americans. Yet some of my friends expressed so much hatred towards Mr. Snowden that a hard-hearted Confederate racist from the 19th Century would have been embarrassed by what they said! It is an interesting world when one of the Berkeley liberals I know stood up during and interfaith conference and said the following (I reconstruct his quote from memory): “I am quite surprised to find myself standing on the same side as Rand Paul and in opposition to our two liberal California Senators, Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, on the Edward Snowden/NSA issues.”